This site is intended for health professionals only

Reducing stress at work: managers’ role in staff wellbeing

1 September 2007

Share this article

MA MSc CPsychol

Chartered Occupational Psychologist
Affinity Health at Work

Emma specialises in helping organisations achieve sustainable business performance through improvements in the wellbeing, morale, productivity and engagement of staff. She combines research and practitioner roles with writing, presenting and lecturing on workplace wellbeing. She is codirector of a research programme investigating the link between leadership/management and employee stress/wellbeing

Stress at work is now a major concern for employers. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that 10.5 million working days are lost each year due to stress, anxiety and depression, and that around one in six working individuals thinks their job is very or extremely stressful. This means that very few organisations are likely to escape the impact of stress-related absence and employee stress.

In response to the problem, the HSE has established “Management Standards” for stress at work that are designed to help employers tackle the major sources of work-related stress risk. Published in 2004, these represent a “set of conditions that reflect high levels of health, well­being and organisational performance”.

They cover six key areas, which, if not managed well, put employees at risk of stress-related ill-health: demands; control; support; relationships; role; and change. Full details can be found on the HSE website (see Resources).

As a practice manager, you have a pivotal role to play in preventing and reducing stress for those you manage and ensuring your practice achieves the HSE Management Standards.

First, your input will be vital to the implementation of processes and interventions to tackle stress. For example:

  • If one of your team suffers from stress, you can help ensure that the problem is identified early, and you will need to be involved in the solution.
  • You are likely to be responsible for the uptake and rollout of risk assessments for work stress within the practice (the HSE provides guidance to help employers assess whether they meet the Management Standards, and tackle any stress risks present in their workplace).

Second, the way you and all those with people management responsibility in your practice behave has an important impact on the stress levels of those being managed. If you study the HSE Management Standards, you will see that whether and how employees experience each of the key areas will be influenced by managers’ behaviour:

  • Managers’ behaviour towards staff and around the practice can prevent or cause employee stress.
  • Managers act as a “gatekeeper” to the sources of stress at work and can influence the presence or absence of hazardous working conditions, for instance, through establishing policies and procedures for their work.

Thus, managing stress in your team is not only about knowing what stress is and being able to identify and tackle it, but also about the way you behave in your management role. The key to preventing and reducing workplace stress effectively is to know what behaviours you should show (and avoid) to have a positive impact.

Identifying stress-inducing behaviour
The research evidence to support managers in this area has, until recently, been sparse. However, new research by psychologists from Goldsmiths, University of London and Affinity Health at Work has started to clarify the key behaviours.(1) Funded by the HSE, and supported by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), the first phase of this research involved interviews with nearly 400 employees and managers, and focus groups with more than 50 human resources professionals.

Participants were drawn from 30 organisations across five sectors, including healthcare (also finance, education, local government and central government). They were asked for their views on what manager behaviours are important, in terms both of behaviours that are effective and of behaviours that are ineffective for managing stress in staff.

The behaviours identified were grouped into themes to create a framework of 19 management “competencies” for preventing and reducing stress at work. Examples of the competencies that emerged from the research, with positive and negative behaviours, are shown in Table 1.


Universal competencies?
Data from the healthcare participants were compared with that from the other four sectors to see if the manager behaviours required to prevent and reduce stress are different depending on the work setting. Perhaps surprisingly, the findings showed no significant differences between the behaviours identified by participants from different sectors.

This suggests that the manager behaviours that prevent and reduce stress in healthcare settings are pretty much the same as those required in financial, educational and governmental settings. There is, perhaps, a set of management competencies that are universally applicable for preventing and reducing stress at work.

From a practical perspective, the research aims to help managers behave in ways that prevent and reduce stress. In particular, the emerging competency framework can be used to train and develop current managers: management development programmes should look to include the relevant competencies. In addition, the competencies can be used:

  • When recruiting/selecting and assessing new managers, to ensure that they show the relevant behaviour.
  • When appraising current managers, to hold them accountable for behaving in ways that improve staff wellbeing.

This should result in healthier organisations, and help to reduce sickness absence. It should also enable employer organisations to meet their duties to protect staff from suffering work-related stress and implement the HSE Management Standards.

Given that many organisations, including the NHS, already have competency frameworks in place, the researchers also explored whether the management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work were distinct from more general management behaviours/competencies. They compared the framework that emerged from the research to a selection of the most widely used people management and leadership frameworks, including the NHS Knowledge and Skills Framework (KSF) core management competencies.

They found that each of the competencies appeared in at least one of the comparison frameworks, suggesting that the framework can be integrated with existing management responsibilities. However, no one framework included all 19 competencies: for example, the NHS KSF framework included only eight of the 19. Table 2 shows which competencies are covered and which are not.


In practice, this means that some behaviours relevant to managing the stress of others are not included in current competency frameworks, and are therefore not being assessed, trained or developed at line manager level. If you are using the KSF to select, train or appraise managers, you may want to consider adding in some or all of the management competencies from the research that are not covered by the KSF.

In particular, when looking to develop your own management skills or those of others in the practice who have people management responsibilities, it may be helpful to consider covering the competencies shown by this research to be important for preventing and reducing stress in staff.

Managers have a key role to play in managing stress at work. Management behaviour has a direct impact on staff wellbeing: managers can prevent or cause stress in those they manage (preferably the former!).

Managers are therefore vital to achieving the HSE Management Standards for stress at work. New research has identified management behaviour/competencies that prevent and reduce stress at work. By incorporating these into your management approach and into training, selection and appraisal of managers in your practice, you can manage stress for your staff more effectively.

Note: The research findings so far are the outcome of the first phase of a continuing research programme. Further research is needed to explore which of the behaviours are most important and how they impact on the health of staff over time.

1. Donaldson-Feilder E, Flaxman P, Yarker J. Management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work. Health and Safety Executive Research Report RR553. Norwich: HMSO; 2007. Available from:

Health & Safety Executive – Work-related stress

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
Short guidance leaflets providing the findings of the HSE research can be downloaded at: