Work-related stress not only affects workers’ productivity, but it can also affect their physical and emotional health.
What's work-related stress?
Work-related stress is a psychosocial hazard that describes the response of a worker who feels that their work demands aren’t matched to their knowledge and abilities or the resources that they have available to do the work. This response can be physical, mental or emotional.
What are the risks?
Feeling stressed at work for long periods of time can cause physiological and/or psychological illnesses and impact health behaviours.
Health outcomes linked to stress include:
- mental health conditions
- musculoskeletal disorders
- cardiovascular disease
- immune deficiency disorders
- gastrointestinal disorders
How do I manage the risks?
Everyone in your place of work has a responsibility to look after their own health and safety as well as the health and safety of others. The following information gives an overview of how you can control the risks that contribute to work-related stress, making your place of work safer for everyone involved.
It’s important to talk about stressors and risks that you believe are or could be affecting your mental health with a manager or other appropriate person at your place of work.
Any discussions about sensitive or personal issues should be private and confidential, and shouldn’t be shared with anyone else, unless you’ve given them permission. When you’re talking about issues that may be affecting employees more broadly, you must be objective and not identify individual employees.
There may be many things in your job or place of work that can make you feel stressed. The following are some of the more common factors.
You may be more likely to develop a mental health condition if you’re always working long hours or your job is very demanding.
If this is happening to you, it's important to talk to your manager or someone from the human resources team, health and safety team, a union representative or another person at your place of work that you feel comfortable with.
There are two types of conflicts that can happen at a place of work:
- when people's ideas, decisions or actions about the job are not the same
- when two people just don't get along.
You can get support from talking to:
- your manager (or to their manager)
- human resources team
- your union
- your employer's Employee Assistance Program
- a friend, family member or other support person
- your doctor or psychologist.
Employers have the right to take reasonable performance management action with employees. This means that your employer can give you feedback about how you’re performing in your job.
Your employer should follow the policy that your organisation has about performance management.
If you feel you’re being unfairly performance managed, the following resources may help you:
- Fair Work Commission
- your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (if they have one).
If a mental health condition has impacted your ability to perform in your role, talk about this with your doctor or specialist. You should also talk to your employer about whether they can make changes to your job or support you during your recovery.
Almost everyone who witnesses or experiences a traumatic event will be emotionally affected, and there are many different ways people respond. Most people will recover quickly with the help of family and friends. For some, the effects can be long-lasting.
If you do experience symptoms after an event, it can happen immediately or even some time afterwards. If your symptoms are distressing or last for more than a few weeks, you should see a health professional to ask for help.
For support following a traumatic event or critical incident contact:
- your manager or supervisor
- human resources team
- a health and safety representative
- a support person at work or a union or association
- your employer's Employee Assistance Program (if they have one)
- your doctor or treating health professional.
As a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you can’t control the stressors that workers encounter in their personal lives, however, by law, you must eliminate or minimise exposure to hazards and factors that can increase the risk of work-related stress.
The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 outlines your duty to do what is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise risks to psychological health and safety. This duty extends to the risk of harm from psychosocial hazards and factors at work.
Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.
The first step is to identify if your workers are being exposed to work-related stress. This means looking at everything from workloads, leadership and culture, social factors and how work is organised.
You can identify psychosocial hazards by:
- talking with workers, supervisors and health and safety specialists
- looking at how work is being carried out, noting any rushing, delays or work backlogs
- watching how people interact with each other during work activities
- reviewing relevant information and records including incident reports, workers’ compensation claims, productivity levels, staff surveys, absenteeism and staff turnover data and exit interviews
- using surveys to gather information from workers, supervisors and managers.
Download the How to examine and interrogate workplace data guide (PDF, 0.31 MB) for further insight into potential hazards in your place of work.
A risk assessment involves thinking about what could happen if someone is exposed to a hazard (the consequence of exposure) and the likelihood of it happening.
A risk assessment can help you figure out:
- the severity of a risk
- whether any effective control measures are in place
- what actions you can take to control this risk
- how quickly you should act.
The risks associated with exposure to work-related stress can be assessed by understanding worker complaints, observing interactions between workers, getting feedback from workers, having one-on-one discussions with workers, and organising focus groups or a worker survey.
The Preventing and managing risks to work-related psychological health handbook (PDF, 0.49 MB) has a list of tools that will help you assess the risks. What you find from your psychosocial risk assessment will help any decisions about the likelihood and consequences of injury or illness from exposure to stress.
After the risks have been identified and assessed, you'll need to control them. When selecting a control measure, it’s important to consult with workers and justify why it was chosen over another measure.
- Talk to workers about their priorities and demands in relation to agreed work hours.
- Match workers’ skills and abilities to work tasks.
- Give workers some control over their work pace and order of tasks.
- Design work tasks in a way where complex tasks are undertaken by multiple team members, where appropriate, to share the load.
- Involve workers in decisions that impact their health and safety and have processes to enable workers to raise any issues and concerns they might have.
- Make sure all managers have the skills to identify and manage conflict.
- Provide workers with access to independent counselling services.
- Have agreed policies and procedures to prevent or resolve unacceptable behaviour.
- Talk to workers about change, performance indicators, resources or other issues that will impact their work.
You may need to use a combination of these control measures to meet your responsibilities under WHS laws. The Preventing and managing risks to work-related psychological health handbook (PDF, 0.49 MB) has more control measures that might be useful for your business.
Risk management should be an ongoing process in your business and you should review your control measures regularly. Don’t wait until something goes wrong.
In some situations, WHS legislation requires you to review controls. These are:
- when you become aware a control measure is not effectively controlling a risk
- before a change that might give rise to a new risk
- when you identify a new hazard or risk
- when consultation with workers indicates a review is needed
- when the dynamic and complexity of your business changes for a new supervisor or worker
- after a health and safety representative requests a review.
What help is available if you’ve been injured at work or because of work?
If you have an illness or injury that you believe has been caused by your work, you may choose to claim for worker's compensation. Find out how to make a claim.
Standards and compliance
All standards and compliance responsibilities for psychological health fall under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Codes of practice
You should read through the relevant legislation and codes of practice carefully to make sure your business is complying with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act.
Tools and resources
- Mentally healthy workplace toolkit (PDF, 10.72 MB) – a series of useful tools and resources for managers and supervisors to create a mentally healthy place of work.
- Preventing and managing risks to work-related psychological health (PDF, 0.49 MB) – a handbook that explains the different psychosocial hazards in detail and provides example control measures and interventions to prevent and manage risk.
- Psychological health for small businesses fact sheet (PDF, 0.38 MB) – simple tips and strategies for managing work-related stress.
- Line Manager Competency Tool – this tool allows managers to assess how effective they’re at preventing and managing work-related stress through their management style and behaviour.