Skip to content

Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive

Undertaking risk assessments to tackle work-related stress

January 2002
Steve Lee, The Keil Centre, Edinburgh

In this article, Steve draws attention to some of the main elements of the new guide and HSE’s broader strategy for tackling work-related stress. He also provides an overview of a risk assessment methodology, developed by The Keil Centre, Edinburgh that has been successfully applied in two large organisations.


HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed upon them’. This makes a helpful distinction between the beneficial effects of ‘pressure’ and ‘work-related stress’ which us a natural but distressing reaction to demands or pressures that a person perceives they cannot cope with.

Research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has shown that as many as one in five of the working population find their work either very or extremely stressful ref 2. An estimated half a million people are suffering from work-related stress, anxiety or depression at levels that make them ill. After musculo-skeletal disorders, this makes stress the nations largest occupational health problem.

Under health and safety law, employers have a general duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health of their employees at work. This includes taking steps to make sure that employees do not suffer stress-related illnesses as a result of their work. HSE recommends that employers undertake risk assessments to help them fulfil their legal obligations.

But it is not just the legal argument that should be convincing employers to take action. Work-related stress can also have a tremendous impact on the productivity of organisations. For example, sickness absences may increase, staff morale may decrease, and staff may seek alternative employment if the organisation is not prepared to listen to their concerns.

Even if we took one element of the equation, sickness absence, then we could reasonably expect employers to be footing a bill of around £370 million pounds, and society as a whole as much as £3.75 billion.

So what is happening to tackle work-related stress?

On 15 June 2000, the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) announced a programme of work to tackle work-related stress through a range of actions. The programme had four main themes:

  1. to work with a range of partners to develop clear, agreed standards of good management practice for a range of stressors;
  2. to better equip HSE inspectors and local authority officers to be able to handle the issue in their routine work, for example, by providing information on good practice and advice on risk assessment;
  3. to facilitate a comprehensive approach to managing stress; and
  4. HSE would launch a publicity push to help educate employers and would produce new guidance with a focus on risk assessment.

First steps

In June 2001, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published the first deliverable of the strategy, the guide ‘Tackling work-related stress- a managers’ guide to improving and maintaining employee health and well-being’.

The guide emphasises that employers should be more proactive in addressing the key sources of stress before they become a concern. To help them, the guide outlines the areas in which HSE is developing management standards, and suggests that organisations undertake a risk assessment based around these to start tackling the problem.

Undertaking risk assessments

Organisations can opt to use off-the-shelf tools to help them assess the risks from work-related stress. However, HSE-sponsored research has shown that the existing hazard-measuring questionnaires for stress are lacking in a number of areas ref 3. In particular, the quantity and quality of the evidence relating to the reliability and validity of the different questionnaires was found to be limited.

In the light of this, The Keil Centre developed a new approach in conjunction with a leading academic in the field of evidence-based practice. The approach takes forward the principles of HSE’s strategy while at the same offering organisations practical solutions for tackling work-related stress.

The method adopts HSE’s familiar ‘5 steps to risk assessment’ framework and talks employers and employees through that process. To summarise:

Step 1 – identify the hazards

To inform step 1, the risk assessment tool asks respondents to provide data on their overall job satisfaction, health, and well-being. An item has also been included to gauge how many people in the organisation are reporting their work to be very or extremely stressful. This enables a comparison against HSE’s research looking into the scale of the problem ref 2.

Step 2 – decide who might be harmed and how

In this step the individual is asked to rate how often certain elements of work are causing them stress (e.g. constant change).

The elements making up step two were obtained from an extensive literature review on the causes of work stress. Interestingly, the literature review identified that the key causes of work-related stress had a significant overlap with the literature on human factors: root causes of accidents (e.g. inadequate communication, constant change, etc.), reinforcing the business case for taking action.

Step 3 – evaluate the risk

The Keil Center became aware that there was a challenge in evaluating the risks from psychosocial hazards. Clearly, these hazards differ from physical hazards as they can be difficult to measure and may be ‘in the eye of the beholder’.

To overcome this, The Keil Centre designed the risk assessment tool so that it engaged both managers and employees in the evaluation of the risk. Using the partnership approach also helped to overcome the common practice of organisations (incorrectly) assuming that they knew the key causes of stress and taking action on those assumptions.

Step 4 – record the significant findings of the assessment

The Keil Centre’s risk assessment template offers organisations a written record of an individuals risk assessment against which they could tailor specific interventions.

On a broader front, the compilation of a number of individual risk assessments provides the organisation with a unit, or group, assessment. It detects the key risk areas and proposes targeted actions for that unit, or group, to take.

Step 5 – review the assessment

In line with HSE’s advice, The Keil Centre has recommended that the organisations who have undertaken the assessments keep them under constant review and consider revising them if significant events occur that could affect employees (e.g. a planned change, a merger, etc.).

So what has happened as a result of the risk assessment?

After undertaking the risk assessments, the organisations were presented with a statistical analysis of the data together with a suggested list of priority areas and actions. These were based on the views of employees.

Having this information meant that any action taken as a result of the risk assessment was meaningful to the participants. This in itself provided additional commitment to the programme of work.

Engaging employees in the risk assessment process from the outset also proved invaluable in demonstrating that the organisation was serious about tackling work-related stress. And this leads us to one of the most encouraging outcomes of the risk assessment process.

As a result of using the method described above, managers and employees are now working together to tackle a complex work-related problem. Both ‘own’ the responsibility for getting to grips with the key issues and for talking frankly about what can be done to reduce work-related stress.

Undertaking a risk assessment, similar to that outlined in this article, can help to shift the culture of an organisation from one where employees blame employers for making them ill, and employers blame employees for not being able to cope, to one of partnership where everyone has an equal say in how to tackle a shared problem. This approach echoes the philosophy proposed by HSE and clearly has extremely positive results if implemented properly.

My organisation would be interested in undertaking a risk assessment for work related stress - where can I find out more?

Further information about the new approach to risk assessments for work-related stress is available from Steve Lee at The Keil Centre, Edinburgh. Steve can be contacted on 0131-667-8059.
Web :

  1. Tackling work-related stress - a managers' guide to improving and maintaining employee health and well-being. Health and Safety Executive
    ISBN 0-7176-2050-6.
    HSE Books.
  2. The scale of occupational stress. HSE Contract Research Report 265/2000.
    ISBN 0-7176-1783-1
    HSE Books.
  3. A critical review of psychosocial hazard measures. HSE Contract Research Report 356/2001.
    ISBN 0-7176-2064-6.
    HSE Books.


Steve Lee was the main author of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) new guide ‘Tackling work-related stress- a managers’ guide to improving and maintaining employee health and well-being’ ref 1. He now works as an Occupational Psychologist at The Keil Centre and has particular expertise in helping organisations tackle stress at source.