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Workplace Stress – Employers’ Responsibilities & Solutions


By Dr Sean Sullivan PhD
Alison Penfold
Mike Goulding
Mary Anne Cooke


The term ‘stress’ has had mixed press over the years either because of poor understanding of what the term means or due to the range of interpretations that we often give to it. For many, stress is seen as a necessary part of any challenging job that can contribute to positive results; from this perspective stress can put us on alert and focuses our resources. This might be called ‘positive’ stress, with the conclusion drawn that if any employee expects their work to be free even of this type of stress then they are being unrealistic and are doomed to mediocrity.

However, there is a considerable distance between this concept of positive stress and the stress that can adversely affect workers, both in their general wellbeing and performance of their designated tasks. It would be more appropriate to avoid the term ‘stress’ when referring to positive and challenging impacts upon the worker, as it appears to be a misnomer – a more appropriate term for this ‘positive stress’ might be ‘arousal’ (a clinical term that differs in meaning from its general connotation) , or to manufacture a term, that a person is ‘adrenalised’.

Stress is more generally perceived as a negative condition, more appropriately associated with the term ‘distress’. One important resource describes stress as:

“..stress is the result of any emotional, physical, social, economic, or other factors that require a response or change” (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety -CCOHS)

There are few legal guides as to what is included (or excluded) in the term ‘stress’. Even the inclusion of stress in the Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Act (‘HSE Act’, 2002) does not offer a definition, apart from it being something other than its accompanying hazardous condition, fatigue :

“(It defines) hazards and harm in a comprehensive way so that all hazards and harm are covered, including those associated with fatigue and work-related stress” (section 6 of the Act, amending s5 of the parent HSE Act)

This amendment does not define the new term other than to indicate that it is something other than its accompanying hazardous condition, fatigue.


In the absence of a definitive explanation we may be left with the somewhat circular argument that stress is something that demands change, with little insight into what it is. Yet health professionals are readily able to describe clinical criteria of disorders that these people would agree may, in part or whole, result from stress. Many of these are mood disorders and/or anxiety disorders such as Major Depression Episodes, Social Phobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, Post-traumatic Stress, Acute Stress Disorders or Adjustment Disorder. Many of these conditions can arise from a single incident or from reduced resilience arising from ongoing pressures.

However, although this level of stress has been required in a precedent in the UK (Morgan v Staffordshire University – cited in the website article of A. Scott-Howman), it appears that the intent of the HSE Act may not require this extent of clinical distress be reached before the punitive aspects for breach are applied. For example, s6 of the Act refers to ‘fatigue’ as well as work-related stress; fatigue is not a medical disorder and suggests that something less than a clinical condition is intended in the definition of ‘workplace-stress’.

A further indication of intention is in the sanctions that accompany any regulation or regulation change. Increases in penalties suggest dissatisfaction in the level of compliance and well as the importance of compliance that will be expected in the future.

The increases in penalties under the amending HSE Act are in any interpretation substantial:

  • Where there is/should be knowledge that serious harm may ensue: an increase in the maximum penalty from one to two years imprisonment or a fine increased from $100,000 to $500,000.
  • (New section) Other non-compliance offences, whether or not the person has suffered serious harm, penalty increased to a maximum of $250,000


Many occurrences, both inside and outside of work, can contribute to our ability to tolerate and respond effectively to our role in the workplace. Some evidence suggests that stress may be less due to its actual presence than the way the person appraises a situation. This suggests that stress should be addressed both in general terms and should take account of individual differences (Oliver et al, 2002).

The HSE Act specifically refers to ‘work-related’ stress and may suggest that if the stress-induced condition arose from factors external to work, this would exonerate the employer from liability. This is not as black and white as it seems. If a worker is clearly experiencing problems with their work which in the past they may have found to be within their ability to address (possibly due to external factors), there may still be an obligation to provide help both ethically and legally. The apportionment of attribution to factors external or internal to the employee’s work is not only a difficult objective process but in any arbitration, the focus may be on failure to attend to overt symptoms of distress displayed at work, wherever they may have originated. The HSE Act emphasises responsibility to both prevent and reduce harm to employees resulting from hazards that will impact upon the more complex domain of mental well-being.


In addressing these uncertainties, taking into account the costly sanctions that occur from non-compliance, adverse publicity and effects upon employee-employer relations resulting from such incidents, the best-practice approach may be to interpret the term ‘work-related stress’ as simply ‘stress’. This suggests that little time should be expended upon determining the origin of the stress, and that employers may benefit from proactive programmes that can commonly enhance an employee’s ability to deal with previously challenging issues, or which may change their perspective of their ability to deal with it. Such programmes may involve education and information regarding alcohol misuse, Internet misuse, identifying early stages of depression, budgeting, promoting healthy lifestyles as well as available resources. These approaches can both prevent adverse coping strategies developing as well as stopping or reversing the adverse effects of many of these behaviours/conditions. Certainly, a timely intervention may result in a solution, engender a caring culture in the workplace, and prevent ‘burnout’ (a synonym for depression that work has contributed to).


Workplace stress, if hard to define, can occur as a result of working within an environment where the employee has little control:

“Workplace stress’ then is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands. In general, the combination of high demands in a job and a low amount of control over the situation can lead to stress’ (CCOHS)

In the modern workplace, uncertainty around continued employment and the effects globally of unforeseeable events that may impact locally, can place its own uncertainty around control over one’s own continued employment. Uncertainty, and thereby stress, can also arise from redundancies (actual or perceived possibility), un-resourced increases in productivity demanded by employers, poor workplace cultures where employees feel unvalued, high turnover of staff, lack of consultation or input, and many other factors.

Murphy (1995) identified five categories of stress within the workplace and examples of distress within each:

  • The job itself: eg too much or too little work; variety, speed of and worthwhileness of the work; ability to decide aspects of the work; shiftwork, isolation and noise/odours/heat etc
  • Employee’s role: eg unclear role, multiple managers, responsibility under or over expectations
  • Career: eg under or over-promotion, perceived low job security, few career development opportunities, low job satisfaction
  • Work relationships: eg negative relationships with those above, at same level or below the employee’s; perceived fear of personal safety, such as harassment
  • The Organisation: eg ability to make decisions; the way management operates; the way the organisation communicates with its employees


Health professionals who work in the field of addictions are aware that these pressures can heighten the prevalence and incidence of addictive behaviours, many of which will impact upon the workplace (eg Internet addiction, alcohol and drugs, gambling and rate of tobacco use). Isolating behaviour commonly accompanies these problems, often resulting in late-stage identification, with accompanying longer term addiction being the rule.

Commonly there will be irritability, anxiety, depression, family problems and reduction in ability to perform their work. In many cases physical health will be affected as a result of mental stress, with these symptoms being more readily identified by the employee or their co-workers/employer. Examples are fatigue (whether or not work-load has increased), indigestion, sleep problems, headaches and migraines, and frequent ‘opportunistic’ illnesses.

Beehr (in Lu 1999) identified a number of workplace stress signs including:

  • Withdrawing from the job
  • Not showing up
  • Coming in late
  • Leaving early
  • Avoiding phone calls
  • Rise in blood pressure
  • An increase in drinking


Each employment environment will have its own ‘culture’ as to how people deal with each other and the organisation deals with its employees. When an organisation states and implies through its operation that it values its employees their wellbeing is enhanced. Wellbeing refers to physical as well as psychological states, and results in benefits for the organisation, such as optimal performance, lower ‘sick’ days off, lower staff turnover and enhanced motivation. Encouragement to develop such a culture should be the role initially of a good and effective employer. Failure to do so will also encourage further legislation such as the HSE Act with more punitive penalties as well as organisational costs.

Various initiatives within the organisation will both help to reduce stress as well as assist in the prevention of stress development.

These are:

  • Having available an employee assistance programme providing self-accessed confidential counselling for staff who are experiencing problems, whether work driven or not
  • Providing talks and other resources on early identification of risky behaviour (eg alcohol abuse, Internet abuse, gambling risks), stress symptoms (eg anxiety, depression), and resources to deal with them once identified
  • Developing strategies to encourage co-worker and self-identification and help-seeking when such symptoms and behaviours arise. These should be without punitive elements that may discourage openness
  • Talks and information provided during work-time around healthy living
  • Providing examples that the organisation cares, such as discouraging a culture of long hours at work
  • Providing other evidence of a caring culture within the organisation eg stress leave options, functions to recognise effort, encouraging teambuilding

Job designs are of course also an important focus and should be designed to reduce stress factors (CCOHS): (Source: Macfie 2002 in Unlimited Magazine)

  • Jobs should be challenging with a variety of aspects
  • The job should have aspects of autonomy – the employee can make some decisions in the performance of the job
  • There should be a career path available
  • There should be optimising of skills through on the job training and if possible qualification earning opportunities
  • There should be recognition of skills, performance, initiative and loyalty
    There should be clear descriptions of the job and reasonable expectations associated with it
  • The line of responsibility should be transparent and linear
  • There should be a safe and reasonable complaints process
  • Feedback and discussion of processes should be encouraged
  • There should be adequate time to perform tasks to required standards (www.workstress)

And many more, recent examples;
In a survey of best places to work, Unlimited Magazine identified six tips for a better workplace, these were:

  • Working in an organisation that was fun was more important than pay or belief in leadership
  • Engendering pride in the organisation
  • Leadership through clear direction, being well-managed and engendering confidence in its leadership
  • Caring about employees’ well-being and demonstrating it
  • Paying fair wages and benefits
  • Working for a successful company

(Source: Macfie 2002 in Unlimited Magazine)


The enactment of the HSE Act places new important and onerous responsibilities upon employers in New Zealand. Although the Act refers to workplace stress, there is often a difficulty in distinguishing between that and factors that may initiate outside of the workplace. In addition, it is unlikely that failure to address symptoms of stress exhibited in the workplace because they first developed outside of work, will necessarily be a defence to any claim under the Act. There are even further considerations that add to the uncertainty: an employee under stress from an external stressor (eg alcohol or Internet abuse) may either be at greater risk for failing to avoid a (minor) stressor, or may continue with the behaviour during work-time, perhaps legitimising the stressor as now being in the workplace. This may especially be the case if the behaviour is part of the job description eg Internet pornography access as part of an IT job, or a culture of heavy drinking on Fridays in the work canteen may exacerbate depression in an alcohol abusing employee. This can suggest that the workplace may become a hazardous place for the employer with the HSE Act in place.

However, an organisation that focuses upon stress reduction in the workplace through a number of well-researched strategies that signal respect and concern for the employee should have little fear of the consequences of such legislation.

The adoption of a culture that identifies such stressors, not only to avoid penalties, but also to provide a safe and caring environment, will be rewarded with a happy and more healthy workforce with consequential benefits of efficiency, productivity and staff motivation.

Such outcomes do not occur by chance. A programme to identify stressors and other hazards in the workplace is a requirement under the HSE Act. This is also an opportunity to design and incorporate a more proactive programme that goes beyond the Act’s requirements. This may involve a greater input than two days paid training for the health & safety representative, regular (but brief) presentations on health matters for all staff, development of supportive rather than punitive strategies for those experiencing difficulties that may have originated outside of the workplace, and employee assistance programmes.

This demonstration of intention to establish a positive and inclusive culture is likely to repay a proactive and farsighted leadership through employee goodwill alone, while avoiding serious sanctions that have been signalled by the imminent legislation.


CCOHS. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety.

Health & Safety in Employment Amendment Bill.
A Government Bill that amends the Health & Safety in Employment Act 1992.

Lu C (1999) Healthy men: coping with workplace stress.

Macfie R (2002) Unlimited Magazine: the 20 best places to work.

Murphy L (1995) Occupational Stress Management: current status and future direction.
In Trends in Organizational Behavior 2:1-14

Oliver J & Brough P (2002) cognitive appraisal, negative affectivity and psychological well-being. NZ J Psychology 31:1:2-7.

Scott-Howman A (2001) Stretching stress to screw the boss.

UK National Work-Stress Network News (2001)