• Five signs that staff stress is out of control

  • 12 Nov 2013
  • Comments 12 comments

Pressure can be a great motivator but too much will cause problems, warns Andrew Kinder

We all want to progress, be given meaningful work and see the tangible results of all our efforts.  Working under pressure to meet deadlines can be exhilarating, especially if obstacles are overcome and recognition is achieved, but, at the same time, too much pressure can cause problems.

Managing stress in the workplace is a two-way process: it is the responsibility of both the organisation and the individual to work together to control it. As a manager, assigning work and deadlines is part of your normal activity. However, keeping an eye out for signs that an employee might be struggling to cope (for whatever reason) should also be an important aspect of your role.

Five signs of stress to look out for:

Changes in behaviour: An employee might go from being energetic and enthusiastic to quiet and withdrawn.

Highly emotional reactions: These might come in the form of anger outbursts or fits of frustration and moodiness.

Looking lost, bewildered, over-whelmed: An employee might appear to not be “in the room” – have trouble concentrating or focusing or appear distracted and confused.

Loss of their sense of humour: An employee may fail to be able to see the “funny side” of certain situations they would have ordinarily have found amusing.

Physical changes in appearance: These depend very much on the individual but some examples include weight loss or gain, greying of the skin or hair or even simply a more dishevelled, unkempt appearance.

What can HR and line managers do about it?

Find time to talk with the employee privately

It should not be assumed that the employee is struggling with work. They may be having real difficulties in their personal and family life.

Voice your observations about their behaviours in a non-threatening way and take care to put aside any preconceived ideas. Don’t assume you know what is causing their stress, you might be surprised by what they tell you. Allowing the employee to talk and responding by showing concern and understanding is really important.    

Offer support

Respect that the employee may not wish to discuss what is happening in their personal life with you. Instead, highlight the professional support services available to them, such as workplace counselling, occupational health and employee assistance programmes.

Ensure you know exactly what support your organisation is able to provide and have this information to hand during any meeting, including phone numbers and relevant web addresses.

Temporarily cut down on work pressures

Once you have determined the source of the stress – whether it is temporary or more of a long-term issue; whether it is work-related or being brought on by other factors – consider a revision of the employee’s workload.

It may be that this should be periodically reduced or that they simply need to be given extra support or training to feel better equipped to carry out their job.

If their problems are externally related, it may be worth proposing that they take time out of their working day to handle these. But ensure that timescales are set so that any reduction in work does not become permanent.


Don’t just leave it there. If the employee is referred to a support service, ask how they have benefitted from this help.  Also, be open to any advice or pointers that are fed back to you either from the support service or from the employee about how to improve the situation.

Monitor the employee’s behaviour and organise follow-up meetings to check on their progress or, alternatively, provide them with a work “buddy” they can go to if they feel they are struggling.

Where there are more deeper-rooted issues or if the stress issues are impacting upon work performance – it is important to seek advice from experts in the occupational health or counselling field.

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Comments (12)
  • I must relax and take vacation for a while.

  • Thanks for posting - a very interesting article. An important point for me is the extent to which external problems can affect employees. Asking employees to leave their personal problems at the door every morning is easier said than done, and this needs to be managed as effectively as work-related stress.

  • Thank you for the documents they are too interesting and supportive

  • I found this article is very useful. Actually I agree with the 5 signs as I noticed that I had all of them. Unfortunately when I shared these to my supervisors, they said "me too! I had these 5 signs of stress too! Who can help me?" Frustrated!

  • I wish we could get rid of the myths that a) stress is an illness and b) there is a difference between stress and pressure. Pressure is one form of stress (the other two being tension and, only used in engineering not medically, torsion (twisting)).

    Stress is a measure of mental or physical load: Think of it as the load on a bridge. It is only when excessive that it causes harm. Choosing what to have for breakfast causes stress, as does holding a disciplinary hearing or confronting redundancies. Differentiating causes only confusion and wild goose chases after mystical solutions to a "problem" that is right in front of us and completely familiar, as Andrew addresses it.

    So great advice, except for the misleading identification between stress, and stress!

  • What happens when it is the HR Manager who is suffering from stress? Sadly, I've been in this situation twice and, also sadly, have been very disappointed by the inability of my own professional colleagues to be able to handle the situation correctly and sensitively

  • I think it's also worth considering that it might not be the job itself but the people they have to work with.  This is particularly common with people working in a project oriented environment where one might be required to move on and off project teams that are a mixture of people know well, people you know a bit and people you never met before and may never meet again.  Often just as you've worked out how to work with someone one of you moves off and you have to get used to someone else.  Also, you don't get that shared history that established teams have so when the organic fertilizer hits the air conditioning there's no firm relationships to adsorb the stress.

    When you add contractors/consultants who might have different goals to permanent staff into the mix that ups the stress levels still further.

  • Thank you to Andrew Kinder for providing this very useful guide to identifying stressed employees. In order to avoid becoming too involved in the employee's emotional life it is a good idea to refer on to an independent professional at the outset. If this is done the employee's integrity and confidentiality is maintained. If you do not have an Employee Assistance Programme in place, then employees can be referred individually to a Counsellor/Therapist. You might like to have a look at www.aliciasmithconsultancy.co.uk for further information.

  • As my name suggests I was a manager in financial services and suffered from stress as a result of an area manager who continually tried to undermine the managers who worked for him; playing one manager off against another - he continually used divide and rule tactics despite the fact that his managers were educated and capable people. He did not respect his managers - they were pawns in his game. Sad to say that this prevails today because we still promote people to managerial roles who are technically competent but are people/relationship incompetent.

    It also sad to reflect that HR departments are staffed with people who lack some of the basic people skills and I would never ever go to HR at my place of work (it leaks like a sieve!!)with a stress related problem. They are unable to treat the problem sensitively and if they are unable to do this what chance have other managers, as they are supposed to rely on HR for guidance.

    Managers need to develop people skills and organisations need to provide a platform to make this happen.

  • A good employer would already have such mechanisms in place.

  • This is my first post, I hope you do not mind me adding an observation.  

    If the employee is suffering from stress and/or depression,  they may well be unaware that they are ill. This could present the HR professional with the dilemma of knowing the employee is at risk whilst the employee denies it.  A duty of care exists, and the HR professional might be expected to act unilatterally, on behalf if the organisation, to safeguard the employee and the organisation.

  • Thanks for your helpful article it is what I need to be aware in my essays.

    Please keep post how the companies may motivate their staff.

    Thank you so much indeed.