Workplace stress can mean different things for different employees – what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another – but some common drivers include long working hours, fears over job security and being given too much responsibility.
And the current economic climate is likely to be exacerbating the issue. The effect of public sector cuts are being felt and with the UK economy still in a fragile state, stress is an ever-increasing problem.
According to recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, stress is, for the first time, the most common cause of long-term sickness absence.
Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: "These figures show that the cuts, job losses, restructurings and pay inequalities are having more than just an economic effect. They are having a serious impact on people's health.
"Unfortunately there is still a tendency amongst many employers to think of it as 'just stress' but this is a real issue which can devastate people's lives and tear apart families."
It is vital that managers take steps to combat stress, for both employees' sake and the business's.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates the cost to society of work-related stress to be around £4 billion each year.
Occupational stress poses a significant risk to businesses. It can lead to a drop in productivity, increased sickness absence, low workplace morale and more mistakes – which can lead to customer complaints. According to the CIPD, compensation payments for stress are also increasing.
And it has a detrimental effect on employee's health and wellbeing. But by taking action to reduce the problem, you can help create a more productive, healthy workforce and save money.
Employers are also required by law to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities and take action to control that risk.
There are a raft of solutions to workplace stress: these can take the form of flexible working options and an increased focus on employee reward.
But the focus now is much more on preventative measures – spotting the early signs of stress and taking action, rather than trying to belatedly deal with what has become a major problem.
Dr Jill Miller, an advisor at the CIPD, said much of the onus now lies with line managers.
"Line managers need to focus on regaining the trust of their employees and openly communicating throughout the change process to avoid unnecessary stress and potential absences," she explained.
"They also need to be able to spot the early signs of people being under excessive pressure or having difficulty coping at work and to provide appropriate support."
According to the HSE, line managers play a "vital role" in identifying and managing stress within an organisation.
This is largely due to their close contact with employees – they will be among the first to spot problems and notice changes and will often be the first person an employee goes to when they feel stressed.
So what can managers do to spot the early warning signs of stress?
Last year, the HSE, together with the CIPD and Investors in People, designed a tool to allow managers to assess whether they currently have the behaviours identified as effective for preventing and reducing stress at work.
The tool works a little like a self-assessment – it helps managers look at their own behaviours and management style and start thinking about the steps they might need to take to better manage occupational stress.
Those completing the tool work through statements covering four behavioural areas – emotional engagement, communicating work, managing individuals and managing difficult situations – identified as being important for managers to prevent and reduce stress in their staff.
Statements such as: 'I clearly communicate job objectives to my team' and 'The deadlines I create are realistic' are posed and users put a tick in column that most loosely represents their level of agreement with each statement.
At the end of the tool managers work out a score based on their answers that reflects their effectiveness in preventing and reducing stress in your staff.
From there they are then able to focus on any development needs they may have – which they can then seek further support on. Many of these changes can be made by a line manager themselves through self-development but there are other forms of support available – like informal coaching, training courses and support from the HR department.
If line managers take appropriate action to ensure that their staff are happy in their role it will play a large part in tackling stress, boosting productivity and improving wellbeing.
Helen Toll, Health and Safety Consultant at Aviva, said: "All too often you still hear people express views like 'I don't believe in stress', or 'there's no such thing as stress' despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
"It is just this sort of attitude, if expressed by managers, that makes it doubly difficult for employees feeling the strain to discuss their work pressures with their line manager, fearing they will be labelled as a 'poor performer' or even a 'trouble-maker'.
"Management style and behaviours and the attitudes managers communicate to their staff, both verbally and non-verbally, are a major contributory factor in work-place stress. Measures to improve these behaviours and raise awareness of mental health issues should be a central theme in any organisational stress management strategy."