Mental health is how we think, feel (emotionally) and behave. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems and can be brought about or made worse by work.

Stress is the harmful reaction people have to excessive pressure and, if intense and prolonged, it can lead to both mental and physical ill health. In some individuals that have an existing mental health problem, it can be more difficult to manage and control work-related stress, leading to the worsening of symptoms. In others, it may cause a mental health problem to arise.

There is often some confusion about the differences between pressure and stress. Pressure can motivate us to perform at our best, but when we experience too much of it we might feel unable to cope and this results in stress, which can then cause ill health.

Employers can help manage and prevent stress at work by improving conditions, making adjustments and helping employees manage a mental health problem at work. In practice, it can be hard to distinguish when stress turns into a mental health problem and when existing mental health problems become aggravated by stress at work.

To control work-related stress, the Management Standards approach developed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) should be implemented. The intention of the Management Standards is to:

  • simplify risk assessment for work related stress;
  • encourage employers, employees and their representatives to work in partnership to address potential sources of work-related stress throughout the organisation; and
  • provide a benchmark for organisations to measure their performance in managing key causes of stress against.

Key actions to safeguard workers' mental health

  • Prepare the organisation by securing senior management involvement. Make sure the rationale and business case for stress management, as well as their legal duties, are understood.
    • Commitment of the organisation to managing work-related stress is best demonstrated by the inclusion of brief details of how this will be done in the organisation’s health and safety policy, under the arrangements section and by the preparation of a specific policy on work-related stress.
  • Identify the risks. There are six areas of work that can have a negative impact on employee health if not properly managed: demands, control, support, role, change and relationships. These areas need to be understood by everyone within the organisation, together with the good practices that should be adopted.
  • Decide who might be at risk by gathering and analysing data, such as sickness absence records, staff turnover rates, number of referrals to occupational health, information from existing staff forums and annual staff surveys.
    • A survey tool for annual staff surveys, designed to work with the Management Standards, is available from hse.gov.uk/stress.
  • Evaluate the risks, based on the findings of the data analysis, and identify hot spots and priority areas.
    • Make sure you check the results of your analysis with your employees and don’t forget to involve employees and their representatives to determine how to address the gap between current performance and the ‘states to be achieved’ with the HSE Management Standards.
  • Record findings and put together an action plan that takes them into account. Typical examples of actions that are often taken include:
    • management development, particularly in interpersonal skills;
    • giving specific groups of employees more control over aspects of their work; and
    • updating a specific policy or procedure shown to have failings.
  • Communicate the action plan to employees, once it’s complete.
  • Monitor and review the action plan to ensure each element is having the desired effect in the appropriate timescales.
  • Maintain management’s appreciation for good stress management. They must understand that it’s an ongoing process of continuous improvement.
  • Remember to record what you have done, as you would for any other risk assessment, and that you will probably need to repeat the Management Standards approach again when it comes to reviewing the action plan.

Templates relevant to preventing mental health problems

Risk assessments

Example form

Display screen equipment

Assessment checklist

Additional resources

Frequently asked questions

Find answers to some common queries about managing risks to people, property and business continuity.

Related topics

The following areas in your health, safety and welfare programme should feature the management of mental health problems: