Handling stress: the role of the line manager

Claire Welsh outlines the role that line managers must play in helping to deal
with stress in the workplace

at work is one of the biggest challenges facing the UK industry today. Research
has found that one in five employees report very high levels of work-related
stress (Smith et al, 2000), leading to an estimated 13.4 million working days
being lost each year, at a cost to society of around £3.75bn.

managers have a crucial role to play in supporting staff who may be
experiencing stress at work. They have a legal responsibility not only to
identify, but also to address, the root causes of stress at work. As a human
resources professional, it is your responsibility to support and guide line
managers in dealing with stress, to ensure they meet their legal duties. To
help you in your role supporting managers, you may wish to provide them with
this practical toolkit on managing stress successfully:

line managers’ guide to managing stress

1.         Make sure you have the necessary
knowledge and skills for dealing with staff who may be experiencing stress.
This should include an understanding of stress and its potential causes,
effects and solutions, as well as personal skills such as the ability to listen
and empathise. The absence of such skills is likely to exacerbate the problem
rather than manage it, so it is therefore imperative that line managers
consider their own abilities, and any possible training needs, prior to
approaching a member of staff suffering from stress.

2.         Encourage your staff to discuss any
concerns they have with you, either about their work, or problems outside of
work. You can do this by asking them how they are coping with their work,
during regular one-to-one meetings and performance reviews. Make it clear that
they can trust you, and that they will not be penalised for admitting to having

3.         Ensure that staff are given the
opportunity to turn to someone other than yourself within the organisation for
help and support in managing stress. It may be that they feel uncomfortable
approaching you as their line manager, or they may feel that you are the cause
of their stress. It is advisable for organisations to have a policy on stress
which informs to staff of who they can approach, such as their human resources
manager or occupational health adviser, if they feel unable to speak with their
line manager.

4.         Listen carefully to what your staff
have to say, and take a calm and considered approach – panicking or jumping to
conclusions will only make the problem worse. Make sure you that you do not
judge them in any way. Discuss with your staff whether they think that work is
a cause of their problem. If they feel it is, you need to identify what it is
about their work and environment that is leading them to feel stressed. Refer
to the Health and Safety Executive’s guidance for managers on identifying and
managing the causes of stress (HSE, 2001).

5.         Don’t assume you have the answer to
their problems. Instead, ask them how they feel that you could help, and what
they would like to see happen. You may need to consider making adjustments to
their job, such as changes in their workload or their role, or changes in the
amount of support and training they have. Talk to them about any resources
available to help them within the organisation, such as an employee assistance
programme. While it is your responsibility to address the problem, you should
always seek support when you feel it is necessary, for example from human
resources or occupational health.

6.         Agree a plan of action with the member
of staff which highlights the changes to be made, and the likely time-scales.
Monitor the effects of the changes upon the member of staff by asking them how
they feel about the changes, and whether they seem to be having a positive
impact on their well-being. Review the plan of action regularly, and consider
amending it in the light of ongoing monitoring.

7.         If the cause of the stress is outside
of work, offer your support to the member of staff, and consider with them
whether any temporary changes need to be made to their work to allow them to
cope with those problems. Again, talk to them about any resources which might
be of help, such as an employee assistance programme or arrangements for
compassionate leave.

8.         If the member of staff experiencing
stress is absent from work, you need to ensure you are familiar with your
organisation’s sickness absence management policy, and follow it accordingly.
Ensure that there are clear lines of communication between yourself and the
human resources department. You should never attempt to make a medical
diagnosis, or make assumptions about the reasons for a member of staff’s
absence from work. It is not a good idea to monitor absence in public – for
example, by displaying departmental ‘absence charts’ on walls. Never openly
discuss a member of staff’s absence record in the presence of others.

9.         It is important that you offer your
support to any individual returning to work after being absent as a result of
stress. You need to follow the guidance given by medical professionals and the
human resources department, and be flexible about the way the member of staff
returns to work. It may be necessary for the member of staff to return
gradually to their work, and/or adjustments may need to be made to their work
or their environment. The member of staff should be able to participate in
planning their return to work, and you should monitor and review how they cope
once they are back.

10.       You need to consider whether it is only
one member of staff who is experiencing stress, or whether the problem extends
to other workers within your department. You can do this by ensuring that a
departmental risk assessment for stress is carried out, using the guidance from
the Health and Safety Executive (HSE, 2001). As a line manager, you are
required by law to conduct risk assessments for stress on a regular basis,
irrespective of whether you suspect that staff are experiencing problems. Such
procedures should therefore be built into your day-to-day activities, to ensure
that you are able to prevent stress, as opposed to simply trying to cure it.


and Safety Executive (2001). Tackling work-related stress. A manager’s guide to
improving and maintaining employee health and well-being. HSE Books, Sudbury.
ISBN 0 7176 2050 6.

A, Johal, S, Wadsworth, E, Davey Smith, G, Peters, T (2000). The scale of
occupational stress: The Bristol Stress and Health at Work Study. HSE Books,
Sudbury. ISBN 0 7176 1783 1.

C. (2002) Identifying and tackling stress in the workplace – the challenges
ahead. Occupational Health Review, 97, 27-31.

Claire Welsh is a chartered health psychologist and an expert in the field of
stress. She is the managing partner of Equilibrium Consulting, a company which
provides tailored solutions for organisations in the assessment and management
of stress.

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