Workplace Stress and the Employers responsibility

Stress levels in the workplace are climbing, impacting mental and physical health of employees – and employers must take more action to prevent it.

In an ever changing environment Corporates, Charities, local and central Government are required to produce more with less which – resulting in a significant change to how business is done and how organisations are structured. As well as opportunity, change can create real or perceived instability, as organisations grapple to adapt to this new global environment.

People’s jobs are being impacted. Whether it’s redundancies, coping with changes to the business or scope of their role, the upheaval that’s happening at a global level filters down into organisations and ultimately to individuals and families.

For the sake of protecting their biggest assets – their people,
it’s crucial organisations take steps to proactively manage stress in the workplace.

While some organisations fail to deal with the issue at all, others adopt a one-sided approach by trying to help stressed individuals without addressing the wider real problem.

Employers might provide individuals with stress management training or help someone become a better time manager, for example, which is all very good but at the end of the day it’s not dealing with the root cause of the stress. Most employees’ stress lies within the organisation itself and that’s where intervention must start.

Research on the most common causes of stress in the workplace have been consistently linked to high levels of psychological strain and burnout.

Even at low levels – consistent and ongoing stress can have a profound negative impact. Common causes on constant stress in the workplace include:

  • Role ambiguity
  • Conflict
  • Overload
  • Unbalanced work relationships
  • Job insecurity
  • Organisational climate


While some workplaces may be unaware of their employees’ stress levels, good indicators are high absenteeism, low productivity and strained relationships between staff and management. You may even see uncharacteristic outbursts, behaviour that you wouldn’t normally see from your employees.

In New Zealand stress is thought to play a role in almost 80 per cent of illnesses and absences. OSH statistics show in one year alone there were about 230,000 work- related injuries and more than 400 deaths as a result of work-related accidents and disease.

Having witnessed a number of destructive situations, the one that sticks in my mind was a case where an employee reached the point of total burnout. That person was not only on anti-depressants but also experiencing suicidal thoughts. Their environment had become so destructive that the individual approach to coping did not address the real issue – providing only small respite. Failure to get to the root causes of the problem within their environment little progress was made. The issue couldn’t be dealt with at an individual level, it required effort from all contributors, including the Organisation.

To push it back solely on the individual is very naive and very dangerous

Organisations are in fact legally obliged to provide a healthy working environment, as one of the latest amendments to Health and Safety legislation (Health and Safety at work Act 2015) has included occupational stress as a workplace “harm” or “hazard”. If found to be in breach of the Act, employers could face a $500,000 fine and/or receive up to two years’ imprisonment.

From a broader organisational level, the right approach to dealing with workplace stress is to firstly look at the removal or reduction of the source of stress in the work setting.

From there, preventative measures can include:

  • Reducing individual workloads
  • Redesigning jobs to remove ambiguity and conflict
  • Effective goal setting and performance feedback systems
  • Redesigning physical work environments
  • Establishing more flexible work schedules
  • Using participative or consultative management styles
  • Providing social support for employees

Although individuals need to assume personal responsibility for the behaviours they engage in to cope with the demands and pressure that are an inevitable element of work-life – management also has a clear responsibility for designing jobs and organisations which enhance, rather than detract from, employee physical and mental health.

Ask yourself this…

Do you or your organisation take proactive steps to manage workplace stress?

If not – WHY not?