This research gathers in one place information, advice and resources connected with workload. Everything is fully sourced with helpful links if you want to explore further.
Many surveys and reports in recent years point to increased or excessive workloads as a major cause of workplace stress in the UK.
Benenden Health surveyed more than 1,000 employees in the UK in 2020. The Mental Health in the Workplace Report revealed that more than four in ten (42.4%) employees suffer from stress. The top three reported reasons for stress were:
Of the employees surveyed, increased workload was by far the biggest cause of mental health issues in the workplace with almost four in ten naming it as the leading cause. With many employees wanting to do the best job they can and feeling an obligation to try and complete all the work assigned, it is not uncommon that this leads to employees burning out. As an employer, it is important to find a balance between delivering the best results and the wellbeing of staff. Unmanageable workloads not only impact staff in the office, but also at home as many will take unfinished projects to complete after working hours.
Side effects of excessive workload
The Mental Health Foundation agrees excessive workload can affect employee mental health:
“The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population.”
The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey 2020 summary confirms the top three causes of stress at work to be
According to the CIPD Public Sector Health and Wellbeing at Work policy document in June 2020, stress-related absence is particularly prevalent in the public sector. Over two-fifths of public sector organisations report that stress-related absence (most commonly caused by heavy workloads) has increased over the last 12 months (44%, compared with 36% of the private and 33% of non-profits). Stress is the most common cause of long-term absence in the public sector: seven in ten organisations (70%) include it among their top causes of long-term absence compared with just 38% of private sector and 43% of non-profit organisations. Half of public sector organisations (50%) also include it among their top causes of short-term absence, compared with just a third of the private sector (33%) and 38% of non-profits.
‘Presenteeism’ and ‘leaveism’ are common ‘Presenteeism’ (people coming to work when unwell) and ‘leaveism’ (for example, people working outside contracted hours, or using annual leave to work/for illness) are critical indicators of the health of an organisation’s culture. These unhealthy workplace practices have serious potential implications for employees’ physical and mental health, as well as for productivity. The findings show that both ‘presenteeism’ and ‘leaveism’ remain widespread in the public sector (as in the private and ‘non-profit’ sectors).
The survey found that public sector organisations remain more active than those in the private or non-profit sectors in their efforts to promote mental health and tackle workplace stress, including tackling ‘leaveism’ and ‘presenteeism’. In particular, public sector organisations are more likely to attempt to identify the causes of stress through risk assessments/stress audits (77%; private sector: 40%; non-profits: 54%). They are also more likely than private or non-profit organisations to attempt to both promote mental health and reduce stress through flexible working options/improved work–life balance, training aimed at building personal resilience and stress management training for the whole workforce.
According to the CIPD Private Sector Health and Wellbeing at Work policy document in March 2020 most private sector organisations are taking some action to improve employee well-being, but they are more likely to act on an ad hoc basis (62%) than take a strategic approach (37%). This is in contrast to the public sector, where the reverse is true (37% act on an ad hoc basis and 63% have a standalone well-being strategy). Less than three-fifths of private sector respondents agree that their senior leaders have employee well-being on their agenda (compared with 72% from the public sector).
The report showed that private sector organisations remain less active and less strategic in their approach compared with public sector organisations. In particular, private sector organisations are less likely to make efforts to identify the causes of stress through risk assessments/stress audits (private sector: 40%, public: 77%), or by using staff surveys/focus groups (private sector: 55%, public sector: 69%).
In January 2020, a study was conducted by the payroll and accountancy group Dolan Contractor Group, gathering responses from employees of 140 companies across the UK. Respondents were asked about the causes of what was deemed ‘excessive workplace stress’, how they combat stress to maintain good mental health and what their employers do to support them through stress.
The study found clear differences between SMEs and large companies when employees attributed sources of stress. Just under half of employees in SMEs (47%) stated that low pay, the inability to build savings and no chance of progression were stress points.
In contrast, the majority of employees from large companies stated that long working hours (40%) caused them the most stress, followed by overwork and management pressure (36%).
When respondents were asked how they would tackle stress, 30% of those at large companies stated that they would speak to their manager. The amount who would seek help from their manager reduced to 12% of workers at SMEs. It is possible that small businesses need to work harder to provide anonymity or an environment that workers feel comfortable to confide in senior staff members.
A policy briefing by ACAS (the Arbitration, Conciliation and Advisory Service) in 2019 on Stress and Anxiety at Work, Personal or Cultural established the following key findings:
A Business in the Community survey from 2019 on Mental Health at Work detailed that:
Clearly the onset of the pandemic has exacerbated the issues of mental health in the workplace. The 2020 summary of key findings from the Business in the Community annual mental health at work study, developed in partnership with Bupa UK Insurance, surveyed 3,614 UK workers.
The survey shows the changing priorities of the UK workforce during the year, at a time when many remain working from home, and prospects appear uncertain. The 2020 results reveal the scale of the impact of the massive change and interruption on employees’ mental health, but also the impressive progress that employers have continued to make in the face of more than six months of disruption.
The survey showed that whilst employees feel supported by colleagues and managers, they do not always feel HR departments (39%) and CEOs and boards (37%) are as considerate of employee mental wellbeing. 62% of managers also say that, at times, they have had to put the interest of the organisation above the wellbeing of their colleagues.
Encouragingly the number of employees who felt that their organisation supports their mental health rose from 55% in 2019 to almost two thirds (63%) in 2020. 56% of employees now feel comfortable about talking about mental health in the workplace and 62% feel comfortable talking about stress in the workplace.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. Stress is considered a hazard.
Under UK law, employers have a ‘duty of care’ to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees while at work. They also have to assess the risks arising from hazards at work including work-related stress, an employer must conduct risk assessments for work-related stress and take actions to prevent staff from experiencing a stress-related illness because of their work.
There is no one statute specifically covering the issue of workplace stress: a number of laws are relevant, and much of the law governing stress has evolved from case law rather than legislation. It’s important for employers to keep up to date with the implications of recent cases as the law in this area is continually evolving.
HSE defines stress as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'.
Employees feel stress when they can't cope with pressures and other issues. Employers should match demands to employees' skills and knowledge. For example, employees can get stressed if they feel they don't have the skills or time to meet tight deadlines. Providing planning, training and support can reduce pressure and bring stress levels down.
Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an employee can cope.
There are six main areas of work design which can affect stress levels and these should be managed these properly. They are:
Employers should assess the risks in these areas to manage stress in the workplace.
HSE's Management Standards represent a set of conditions that, if implemented:
They cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. The Management Standards are:
Demands includes issues such as workload, work patterns, and the work environment.
The standard is that:
What should be happening:
Control is how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
The standard is that:
What should be happening
Support includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
The standard is that:
What should be happening
Relationships includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
The standard is that:
What should be happening:
Role includes whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles.
The Standard is that:
What should be happening:
How is organisational change (large or small) managed and communicated in the organisation.
The Standard is that:
What should be happening:
In October 2019 the Mental Health at Work Commitment was launched. Developed with the knowledge and expertise of mental health charities, leading employers and trade organisations, the Commitment provides a framework for employers who recognise the importance of promoting staff wellbeing. This framework sets out six clear standards based on what best practice has shown is needed to make a difference and better equip employers to create an environment where employees can thrive. The standards build on those published in the independent Government-commissioned Thriving At Work review in 2017.
The six standards are:
To make a long-term difference to employee wellbeing, single interventions are not enough. A wide-ranging plan is needed.
What’s expected of staff? And where, when and how are they expected to do it? No one single employee’s work is a set of actions in a vacuum but, in reality, is affected by the behaviours, plans and environment around them. Thought about properly, these factors can be a positive force for wellbeing.
By opening up conversations about mental health, and fostering a culture where employees feel they can seek support if they are struggling, employers can play an integral role in keeping staff well.
It is never clear when or where an opportunity to make a change, a request for help or a trigger for a conversation might spring up. Therefore, staff at all levels of an organisation have a role to play—and employers need to support them all in fulfilling it.
One of the easiest ways to support employees is to make sure staff are aware of the help, tools and services available to them. However, it is not just about signposting; leaders and managers should actively promote their use.
An organisation’s team is one of its most important assets, so factors such as wellbeing, engagement and retention are vital indicators of a company’s performance.
In the public sector it is becoming more commonplace for trade unionnes to negotiate workload agreements on behalf of members. The information below is taken from the UNISON public service union documents as a guideline to workload agreements.
The guidance sets out the key issues for branches when negotiating a workload agreement with an employer. This advice outlines some techniques to monitor overtime and unpaid hours as well as providing ideas on how to engage with employers so that managers are able to properly support employees who have workload issues.
What should be included in the agreement?
The agreement should apply to all staff and include the following key principles:
Benenden Health’s The Mental Health in the Workplace Report 2020 recommends the following steps to help staff with workload issues:
Tips from the Chartered Accountants Association on reducing workloads include the following:
1. Acknowledge limits
When staff have an unrealistically heavy workload, admitting that they cannot achieve it all is the first step towards getting the situation back under control. Thinking that working a bit longer or a bit harder will help to catch up is an illusion.
Instead, try to take control of the situation. And one of the most important ways to do just that is to get used to saying ‘no’ to those who keep piling the work on, or at least to make sure they have more realistic expectations. If not, the quality of work could suffer, deadlines may be missed and staff become so exhausted that their health is affected.
2. Pick and prioritise
If there is no way to complete everything on the to-do-list, choose the tasks that need the most attention and try to accept the fact that the rest will be left undone. Some business experts call this process workload triage.
Consider the Franklin-Covey method of prioritising. This involves marking each task as one of the following:
A: Urgent and important
B: Important but not urgent
C: Urgent but not important
D: Neither urgent or important
Then, concentrate on the A tasks before moving on to the Bs and Cs. The D tasks are the ones to be left undone. In time, staff may learn to say ‘no’ to D-type tasks and only ‘yes’ to the As, Bs and Cs.
3. One thing at a time
Try not to be tempted to dip in and out of tasks. Instead, work out the best order to complete tasks in the same priority category; do the most important task first and only move on to the next one when the first one is finished.
4. Deal with deadlines
Most workers have experienced what it is like to have an impossible deadline. Deadlines are often the largest cause of stress in the workplace. Staff have nothing to lose by asking the manager to consider extending the deadline. If that is not possible, staff could ask for more resources to help meet the deadline or find out if the task can be altered to make the deadline more achievable.
Meanwhile, staff should try to think carefully about deadlines before agreeing to them. Generally speaking, accepting a deadline means the employer or manager will expect employees to stick to it.
5. Be good to yourself
With a heavy workload, taking regular breaks throughout the day may seem like the last thing staff should do. But it may well be the best. Working through without breaks is much more likely to affect performance and productivity in a negative way, whereas taking just 20 minutes off for lunch and regular mini screen breaks can help make employees feel refreshed and more focused.
Essential learnings from the Chartered Management Institute from 2019 on dealing with excessive workloads include the following:
1. Check which tasks are your own
According to David McLaughlin, Training and Development Manager for CMI, the ability to delegate is as important as defining priorities. “Review your workload and make sure it’s all actually yours to do and you haven’t taken on someone else’s work in a bid to be helpful. Ask yourself: what can you get help with and who can help.” This is part of managing yourself and recognising your role within an organisation.
2. Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations
If you’re more junior and your workload is set by your manager, “it usually demands a difficult conversation,” according to David. “You need to have good communication and negotiation skills to do this. You also need to be very clear what the issue is.”
3. Improve organisational skills
Time management, self-awareness and knowing the role are all part of progression at work. Using SMART Objectives can help staff understand what needs to be achieved, and to-do lists.
Definition Of Smart Objectives
Definition Of Smart Objectives
Objectives should be specific. They should be outlined in a clear statement of precisely what is required, describing the result that is desired in a way that is, detailed, focused and well defined.
Measurement is hugely important because it will enable you to know whether an objective has been achieved. Therefore, include a measure to enable organisations to monitor progress and to know when the objective has been achieved.
An objective can be said to be achievable if the necessary resources are available or similar results have been achieved by others in similar circumstances. Design objectives to be challenging, but ensure that failure is not built into objectives. Objectives should be agreed by managers and employees to ensure commitment to them.
The concepts of 'realistic' and 'achievable' are similar and this may explain why some use the term 'relevant' as an alternative. Focus on outcomes rather than the means of achieving them.
It is necessary to set a date or time by which the objective should have been accomplished or completed and this contributes to making objectives measurable. Therefore, agree the date by which the outcome must be achieved.
4. Think about meaning
Meaning and purpose can help focus an employee’s time. Check that tasks are useful, are working towards a goal and adding value.
5. Use tools or software
Check what software, calendars or shared systems the organisation has available.
A very simple tool that staff can create themselves is the Time Management Matrix. The matrix is a simple four quadrant chart that maps a to do list across two axes – important/not important and urgent/not urgent. It’s very easy to create using spreadsheet software such as Excel and is very useful for mapping out what to prioritise – start with anything in the top left box (urgent and important) and move clockwise around the matrix.
The Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) is the professional association for employers offering rewards and benefits to their staff as part of a wider HR strategy to engage talent and drive success.
In a content piece on the association website from 2018, Richard Holmes, director of wellbeing at Westfield Health, discusses how ‘failure to cope’ with heavy workloads is a widespread issue in the UK workforce and stretches further than just the healthcare industry. The four top tips on how to help employees manage heavy workloads are as follows:
1. Support systems are crucial
“In every industry, it’s crucial employees are provided with guidance from line managers and senior management. This structure will support the mental health and wellbeing of employees, with emotional guidance and encouragement. In order to achieve this, line managers must be deemed approachable and easy to talk to by employees. It can be as casual as going for a coffee every week, or having regular, informal check-ins. Employees need to feel confident and able to be honest and flag when they are feeling stressed and overworked.
“Line managers should also bear in mind they are often the ones allocating the workloads, so should consider the capacity and resource each individual has. Often being overwhelmed by the number of tasks an employee has is the core problem – which is one that can easily be altered by line managers.”
2. Mental resilience
“Employees should be trained in how to differentiate between pressure and stress, and develop their own mental coping strategies. Pressure is inevitable in the working environment with targets and deadlines to be met. However, stress occurs when pressure starts to impair performance. Levels of pressure and weaknesses are different for everyone, so employees should be encouraged to develop a self-awareness, in order to identify the signs and symptoms when they are stretching beyond these.”
3. Prevent exhaustion
Research in 2018 by Westfield Health showed almost half (46%) of UK workers regularly turn up to their jobs feeling too tired to work, and more than a third (37%) tend to be more forgetful and make errors as a result of tiredness.
“Employers should ensure that staff aren’t regularly working beyond their contracted hours, and that shift patterns are manageable. Employees should always be encouraged to take regular breaks, which should never be perceived as ‘not working hard enough. It’s important to remember exhaustion is a result of far more than just lack of sleep. Factors including mental health, physical health and diet also contribute.”
4. Effectively manage emotional environments
“Often, due to the demands of roles in industries that are customer facing, or patient facing in the healthcare industry, employees are required to be skilled ‘emotional labourers’. This requires providing compassionate care to patients and customers in high pressured and fast paced environments. This involves applying emotional effort and is likely to exacerbate burnout and other mental health problems over the long term.
“One way of managing this is to take steps to improve our ‘emotional intelligence’, which in simple terms means the ability to recognise other people’s emotions. Building upon empathy and emotional intelligence will help to reduce feelings of emotional exhaustion. It’s also important to take plenty of breaks and rest time throughout the day, and [employees should] take time to speak to colleagues and friends about non-work-related subjects to allow time to be removed from the working environment.”
If it is a manager’s role to recognise and address stress and anxiety in the workplace, how is this being addressed? In March 2020 Gallup published a content piece outlining four ways to help managers handle heavy workloads.
1. Set clear expectations to help managers focus on the right things
Managers are less likely than individual employees to know what's expected of them at work. And managers are 67% more likely to strongly agree that they have a lot of disruptions at work. On top of that, 42% of managers strongly agree they have multiple competing priorities, compared with 27% of individual employees.
Holding managers accountable for team performance and engagement is a key driver for building a high-performing culture. Sorting this out matters. Therefore, ask managers about the demands on their time and how it relates to their own performance goals and role expectations. Take specific note of items that are falling "to the back-burner" or are misaligned with the outcomes they're responsible for.
2. Individualise responsibilities based on each manager's strengths
Give managers the opportunity to consider the tasks they most enjoy, remembering that interests can be an indication of strengths and, ultimately, success.
If something is not getting as much attention as you and the manager wish it could, and it is not a primary interest, empower the manager to take it off their plate. If the item that is being removed needs to get done, then consider who on the team may benefit from the opportunity to tackle this as a growth opportunity. Is there another manager on the team, or a new manager for whom this work may be a developmental opportunity?
If the manager that is being working with is not a natural delegator, they may need support or encouragement to delegate work and give trusted members of the team autonomy to get the job done. Give permission to delegate and see what happens as a result.
3. Attract and choose managers for the right reasons
Some people become managers because they see it as the only way to advance. In fact, one benefit managers point to is that they have more opportunity for career advancement and learning (66% report having access to a professional development programme).
Make sure there are ways "around" the manager role for people to advance and earn more money over time. Gallup recommends starting with objective performance measures and scientifically validated assessments of natural manager talent to determine who has the potential to be promoted to a people leader role.
4. Prune nonessential tasks
Lastly, when reviewing the list of tasks with the manager, consider whether some of them are needed at all. If the answer to that is "no," then simply eliminate. Do not be afraid to eliminate busywork or things the manager is doing "because we've always done it that way."
The CIPD policy document from 2020 outlines these key insights and recommendations for the public sector in terms of addressing workplace stress:
The CIPD policy document from 2020 outlines these key insights and recommendations for the private sector in terms of addressing workplace stress:
As suggested in the practical tips section above, using workload software tools can be a useful way to alleviate staff concerns over excessive workloads.
As outlined by WorkinTrak in October 2020, the implementation of a workload management strategy can be critical to improving the quality of service. Planning and executing proper workload management strategies can help relieve staff concerns over workloads and help manage the company in a better way.
The following are major workload management techniques:
Workload management tools can benefit the team in the following ways:
The links below provide further information on workload management tools including best recommendations:
1. 15 best resource management software and tools 2021
2. Best task management apps of 2021: organize and manage your workload
3. The 10 Best Project Management Software With Time Tracking 2020
ACAS - Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service
Dealing with stress in the workplace
Guidance from ACAS: Promoting positive mental health in the workplace June 2019
Promoting positive mental health in the workplace
Business in the Community is a network committed to ensuring that age, gender, race and wellbeing do not limit an employee’s engagement and success in the workplace. It provides toolkits on Mental Health, Suicide prevention and Suicide postvention to help employers support the mental health and wellbeing of employees.
Offers BITC/Public Health England Health and Wellbeing Toolkits
The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) has published a useful fact sheet on work related stress detailing signs of stress, dealing with stress at work, the legal position, and further contacts and reading.
Health and Safety Executive
Working together to reduce stress at work - A guide for employees
We have produced some examples to help you with your own stress risk assessment.
The Management Standards
The Management Standards approach will help organisations comply with the law and tackle work-related stress.
Tackling stress workbook
Our workbook gives step-by-step guidance on how to use the Management Standards approach in your workplace.
Workplace stress posters
These sets of posters will increase awareness in your workforce and help to prevent stress in the workplace. They are unique in design and style of messaging, offering employers a choice for their staff.
The Talking toolkit (PDF) provides help for line managers to have simple, practical conversations with employees which can help prevent stress.
These case studies show how others have dealt with stress.
Share your views
International Stress Management Association
The International Stress Management Association [ISMAUK] is a registered charity and the lead professional body for workplace and personal stress management, wellbeing and performance.
New ISMAUK Hub
The Hub is a new forum for ISMAUK members, professionals, businesses and anyone with an interest in ISMA. As a valuable library and resource for the whole ISMA community, it offers an opportunity to share information on subjects such as stress management, mental health, wellbeing and workplace performance.
Stress Management Society
The Stress Management Society is a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping individuals and companies recognise and reduce stress.
The organisation offers stress for work services as outlined below:
Thriving at Work Leadership Council
The Thriving at Work Leadership Council is a business-led council made up of business representatives from across the private, public and voluntary sector in addition to representatives from a range of business organisations and membership bodies.
The Council was set up in response to the 2017 Thriving at Work review, which sets out a series of recommendations to achieve a ten-year vision where:
TUC (Trades Union Congress)
Work your Proper Hours Day initiative held each year on 28 February, been running for about 15 years.
In 2019, 5.1 million employees provided 39 million hours of unpaid overtime each week. This works out at a weekly average of 7.6 hours per person.
Guide to Wellbeing and Stress
Workstress – The UK National Work Stress Network