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How to spot the signs of workplace stress

Ever feel stressed because of work? You’re not alone. According to the Health and Safety ExecutiveOpens in a new window, 822,000 workers suffered from work-related stress in 2020/21, with stress, depression or anxiety accounting for half of all work-related ill health cases.

If stress isn’t managed, it can lead to absence from work and decreased productivity. Start-up businesses can be especially stressful, and it’s important that you can spot the signs of workplace stress in your employees to avoid burnout and health issues.

Starting your own business can be a challenge. It can also be stressful for your employees. Although some workplace stress can help motivate people to achieve work goals and targets, too much stress may lead to ill health, lost productivity through sick days and high staff turnover. As an employer – even of a start-up business – you have a duty to protect employeesOpens in a new window from stress at work.

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Employer responsibilities

Preventing risk to employee mental health falls under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974Opens in a new window. No matter the size or stage of your start-up, if you employ staff, you have a legal duty to keep employees safe in the workplace.

Suitable and sufficient measures need to be in place to reduce the risk of stress in the workplace, including:

  • Providing health and safety training to staff.
  • Carrying out risk assessments to identify possible causes of workplace stress.
  • Making reasonable adjustments to ensure employee safety.

Encouraging a healthy work environment and acknowledging when employees are overwhelmed with stress can help prevent long-term harm to the individual and your business.

Signs of workplace stress

It’s normal to have some degree of stress in the workplace, especially leading up to deadlines and major projects, but sustained or high levels of stress can harm employee health. Stress-related sick leave can result in lost productivity, high staff turnover and harm revenue. This can be incredibly challenging when starting a business.

According to the Health and Safety ExecutiveOpens in a new window, on average workers absent due to stress, depression or anxiety took 21.6 days off work in 2019/20, though the Covid pandemic has had an effect on sickness trends.

Prevention can be better than cure. As a new business owner, it’s essential that you look out for signs that employees may be suffering from work-related stress. Some employees may be reluctant to raise the issue with you or may not be aware they are overly stressed until it negatively affects their health.

Here are some common signs of stress in the workplace to look out for. The NHSOpens in a new window has a comprehensive list of the broader signs of stress or burnout to look for.

Lack of punctuality

It’s human nature to occasionally run late to work due to traffic, missed alarms or trying to get children to school, but timekeeping can become an issue if stress starts to manifest itself. If an employee regularly arrives late to work, it may signify stress. Lateness may be due to not enough sleep causing slow starts, actively trying to avoid work by coming in late, or just poor timekeeping in general due to stress.

Frequent absence

As stress, anxiety and depression are among the leading causes of work absenceOpens in a new window, regular sick days may mean employees are dealing with anxiety, depression and stress. Even if the absence isn’t directly related to stress or trying to avoid difficult situations at work, it may be down to physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, stomach issues and tiredness.

Withdrawn workplace interactions

Some people are naturally more introverted than others. However, if an employee is quieter than usual, it may be a sign of stress. Although many of us have days where we’re less enthusiastic or don’t want to socialise, consistent withdrawal could be stress impacting confidence and self-esteem. Employees may isolate themselves to prevent unwanted enquiries as to how they are feeling. Signs can be not joining in during meetings, office conversations and general quietness in the workplace.


Being tired can be a common symptom of stressOpens in a new window, especially if an employee struggles to sleep. Physical and mental fatigue can result from not having adequate time to rest or suffering from insomnia and interrupted sleep due to worries. If an employee regularly comes into work visibly tired, they may be feeling under pressure.

Missed deadlines

Missed deadlines, memory lapses and poor concentration may be a sign of stress. Deadlines missed as a team or individual basis can be down to lack of concentration, leading to the inability to finish work on time or forgetting when work is due. Workload pressures or avoiding certain tasks due to feeling pressured may hinder the completion of work.

Reduced standard of work

The quality of work by your employees should be fairly consistent. If the standard starts to slip, it may signify stress. Work may be rushed in order to be completed, or a lack of concentration may slow down efforts. Strict deadlines may increase pressure for employees, resulting in them feeling stressed and unable to complete work to their usual standard.

Atypical behaviour

If atypical behaviour becomes a regular occurrence, it may signify stress. Behaviours that are out of place, such as exhibiting frustration, irritability, aggression, or increased use of alcohol or smoking, can cause concern. Being overwhelmed at work may result in behavioural changes.


If you notice employees staying late, coming in early or not booking time off, this can be a sign that they are overloaded and feel unable to take time out to unwind and relax. They might work longer hours to try and meet demanding deadlines or get more work done to alleviate stress. This type of behaviour can result in even more stress, compounding the issue.

What to do about workplace stress

In the second part of our workplace stress for start-ups series, we will be delving into some of the causes of workplace stress. We’ll also look at what you can do as an employer to help reduce the risk of stress levels in your employees. To help your understanding of workplace environments, read our guide to creating a healthy work environmentOpens in a new window.

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This article and the content provided therein is exclusively for informative purposes. Nothing in this article or in its contents is intended to provide advice of any kind (including legal, financial, tax or other professional advice) and should not be relied on as such. You should get professional or specialist advice before doing anything on the basis of the content contained in this article.

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