How to risk assess work-related stress

Stress Risk Assessment: Identifying Role Stressors

Health & Safety at Work legislation and particularly the Management of Safety Regulations (1999), place a legal requirement on all employers to carry out written Risk Assessments on all aspects of workplace hazard and risk.

Such assessments should be carried out by a 'Competent Person', who is trained in the process and understands the impact of Health & Safety Law.

The process of Risk Assessment is a basic 5-step approach (see HSE guidance booklets). The following basic headings apply in all cases of the process:

  • Identify the hazards and associated risks,
  • Identify who might be at risk,
  • Note the controls and determine whether they are adequate, implement such control measures as are necessary,
  • Record the findings in writing, and
  • Review the assessment periodically.

This same processes apply to COSHH, Manual Handling, the overall work environment, workstation design and to any issues that affects worker output and productivity. If these factors make them sick, then they should be assessed and appropriate actions taken.

Employees are duty bound not to make their own work unsafe, and are also obliged to report any shortcomings in workplace safety to the employer for action. If this means that aspects of work are stressful, then they should be recorded through the appropriate channels, and a response should be made by the employer or the relevant Competent Person. The Trade Union Safety Representative and/or Shop Steward should also be informed.

The following brief generic approach may be helpful:

Low Minimal/no further action necessary: monitor to ensure controls are maintained
Medium Actions are required to reduce risk, with resource demands to be considered in reduction/elimination of potential stressors.
High Urgent efforts are required to reduce risk, and consideration should be given as to whether work should be started or continued


  1. The risk assessment is completed on the role not on the individual, remembering that ultimately an individual cannot be totally separated from the role.
  2. The role specification should be included in the assessment taking into account the skills and abilities of the individual, identifying any training needs, to ensure there is no possible conflict between ability and role
  3. A range of control measures that may be appropriate to control the risks to staff should be considered. It is likely that a combination of control measures will be required.
  4. Summary actions/further possible controls may be included in the final action plan.
  5. If the risk is estimated to be low no further action may be necessary. If the risk is estimated to be medium or high additional control measures will be required:
  6. Try to identify the key stressors and underlying causes with the potential to develop work-related stress in a particular service area. Accurately identifying these will help focus resources and find the controls most likely to reduce the risk.
  7. Consultation with staff is essential. Managers may not feel that there is a problem; staff however, may feel differently. Staff should be encouraged to communicate their views or where they identify stressors within their particular role(s) to enable the development of a complete picture. Employees are more likely to be committed to control measures if they helped to develop and put them into practice. Take an overall view and try to balance the risks to employees against business needs.
  8. Having identified the necessary additional control measures develop an 'Action plan for implementation' listing the control measures that need to be implemented, a date for implementation (taking account of resources etc) and the person responsible for ensuring implementation.
  9. Once all the additional control measures have been implemented carry out a further evaluation of the risk. If the risk is estimated to be low no further action is necessary. If the risk is still estimated to be medium or high a further review and additional control measures will be required.
  10. The control measures must be regularly monitored and reviewed to ensure that they remain effective.
  11. The entire process must be recorded in writing, openly and transparently available to all those employees who are affected. Copies of assessments and outcomes will also be provided for Trade Union Safety Representatives/Shop Stewards. 

Control Measures

Having identified and confirmed the risks, associated hazards and potential actions required, the next step is to put together the appropriate control measures and action plan, in order that the matter can then be taken forward.

The measures can be categorised under key headings, and appropriate tools put in place as necessary. Key focus areas will include:


Demands on the individual are often quoted as the main cause of work-related stress. It is important that job demands are fully evaluated to identify what are the true demands of the job and that these demands do not become unmanageable. Workload, capability/capacity to do the work, physical andpsychosocial environments would be looked at here.


Research has shown that where an individual has little control in how their work is carried out, this can be associated with poor mental health. Research also suggests that where there are greater opportunities for decision making there is a greater level of self-esteem and job satisfaction. An obvious issue for consideration here would be task design.


"Relationships" is the term used to describe the way people interact at work. Other people can be important sources of support but they can also be sources of stress. At work relationships with colleaguesat all levels can dramatically affect the way we feel at the end of the day. The two specific aspects of these relationships that could lead to work-related stress are bullying and harassment.


Many organisations have had to undergo change in recent years. These changes could incorporate the introduction of new technology, new working practices and procedures, downsizing and complete or partial restructuring. The changes could be one clear overall objective or a series of smaller, on-going, more subtle frequent changes. Poor management of any change can lead to individual's feeling anxious about their employment status and reporting work-related stress. Therefore it is very important that any change is properly managed.


The potential for developing work-related stress can be greatly reduced when a role is clearly defined and understood, that expectations do not produce areas of conflict. The main potentially stressful areas are role conflict and role ambiguity, together with responsibilities.


Organisational culture is key in determining how successful an organisation is in managing work-related stress. Organisational culture is often very strong and difficult to change. A healthy culture will be one where communication, support, and mutual respect are the norm. This area would include communications and staff welfare for example.

Support, Training and factors unique to the individual.

To eliminate/reduce any potential stressors identified within a particular role, all the above are key elements in conducting a risk assessment.

All training should be undertaken jointly where possible and both workers and management should be aware of the total training programme and its content.

The ensuing action plan will also incorporate the following:

  • Evaluation of Current Risk (with existing controls in place)
  • Action plan for Implementation of Additional Control Measures
  • Evaluation of Risk with Additional Controls in Place Calculate the risk based on the perceived reduction in potential stressors with additional control measures in place.

Workplace Audits

The HSE provides helpful advice on workplace audits as part of its Management Standards process. This website also carries links to examples of audits. In addition, much published Trades Union guidance also suggests Audit ideas.

Other sources of information include published articles such as: Stress audits, what are they? and why bother?

The website of the International Stress Management Association UK

The HSE Management Standards 2004

The HSE introduced in November 2004 six Management Standards aimed at employers whose responsibility it is to assess, using recommended tools what the levels of work-related stress are in their workplace. The Standards look at the six key areas of work and if properly managed, can help to reduce work-related stress:

  • Demands - Includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control - How much say the worker has in the way they do their work.
  • Support - Includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • Relationships - Includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role - Whether all workers at every level understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
  • Change - How organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The Standards help to measure performance in managing work-related stress. Each standard provides simple statements about good management practice in each of the six areas.

HSE does not expect every employer to meet all the Standards at their first attempt. The Standards are goals that employers should be working towards through an ongoing process of risk assessment and continuous improvement.

'Willing 100' Project

The HSE has launched a project to highlight and encourage use of the Stress Management Standards by employers. As of July 2005, despite their being available since November 2004, very few businesses have taken them up. Not surprisingly the considerable work that went into their development has seemingly failed to reach fruition so far.

Over the 2005/2006 period HSE will be encouraging a range of businesses in both public and private sectors to adopt the standards.

Research has been published called Beacons of Excellence in Stress Prevention identifying the work so far carried out by a range of Beacon Employers, showing good practice that is highly recommended.

A range of case studies is described in the research paper, and it highlights several Local Authorities as good models, especially Somerset County Council, which is flagged up as a particularly good example.

Case Study

Somerset County Council - Using a Stress Audit to identify risks

Somerset County Council has developed a comprehensive approach to stress related risk assessment. There are three key elements to their approach:

  • Stress auditing: a major audit was carried out last year
  • Proactive preventative risk assessment
  • Reactive risk assessment

In addition to these three elements the analysis of sickness absence data is improving, including efforts to detect patterns of absence that may indicate stress related problems.

Next: How to Develop Stress Policies