Early intervention for work-related stress – what managers need to know

This guidance may help managers identify early signs that an employee is experiencing work-related stress and suggests a series of steps to help employees.


Psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards might include poor supervisor support or high job demands.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards. Some hazards might always be present at work, while others only occasionally. There is a greater risk of work-related stress when psychosocial hazards combine and act together, so employers should not consider hazards in isolation.

Psychosocial hazards do not necessarily reveal the causes of work-related stress. Causes are likely to be specific to the employee, work or workplace. Senior management should identify which psychosocial hazards negatively affect employees' health and well-being and take appropriate action to control the impact of those hazards.

Why early intervention matters

The way managers respond and the level of support they offer is critical if an employee is experiencing symptoms of work-related stress. Managers have a central and unique role because they are often in the best position to recognise when an employee might be struggling. Employers should have systems in place to ensure managers are in the best place to provide support, from starting conversations through to developing a plan to help the employee stay at work. Early intervention also maximises the success of identifying and addressing the work-related psychosocial risks which may have led an employee to experience work-related stress.

Early warning signs

Managers are not expected to diagnose a psychological injury or illness. However, the earlier a manager notices or is made aware an employee is experiencing possible signs of stress, the sooner steps can begin to help the employee.

Early warning signs an employee might be experiencing work-related stress include:

  • excessive emotional responses and erratic behaviour. For example, uncharacteristic behaviour such as being overly sensitive, irritable, angry, teary or tense
  • obsession with parts of the job while neglecting other parts
  • working longer hours than usual without the expected outputs, or working fewer hours
  • disengagement and withdrawal behaviour. For example, increased unplanned leave, reduced participation in work and social activities
  • low morale, low motivation or low energy levels
  • increased use of negative language and being involved in workplace conflict
  • appearing tired and experiencing headaches or frequent aches and pains
  • changes in physical appearance, such as less attention to personal grooming
  • reduced performance

Talking about work-related stress

Good relationships are based on openness, trust and respect. Managers should be open and approachable and employers should provide training to ensure all managers have the skills to provide employees with a level of comfort when disclosing personal information that might affect their behaviour or performance at work. Having open and supportive conversations can also encourage employees to get help from their support networks, such as family, friends or medical practitioners, at an early stage.

Starting the conversation

A manager's first response should be an exploratory and empathic conversation which specifies the changes in the employee's behaviour in the workplace. Managers should express genuine concern and offer support. Conversations should be in a suitable private location to avoid unwanted attention so managers can provide their full attention, and maintain confidentiality and privacy.

Ask 'Are you okay?' or some version of that question, and be prepared to follow up if the employee provides an answer such as 'No, actually I don't think I am'.

A 5-step approach to talking about work-related stress

The following approach can help managers talk to employees about work-related stress.

Respect employee privacy

Like any other health or personal issue, an employee makes a choice to talk with their manager about work-related stress. Some employees might not feel comfortable talking about how work will handle stress issues.

Employees are more likely to talk about work-related stress if they can be confident that:

  • what they say is treated with respect and in confidence
  • managers and colleagues support them and respond appropriately to their needs
  • the workplace does not tolerate harassment and discrimination

Work-related stress can contribute to an employee experiencing a psychological illness or injury. If this is the case, a manager must not talk about the employee's psychological illness or injury with other members of the team or anyone else, unless that employee has given permission. If there is an impact on the team, ask the employee what they would like their colleagues told or how the employee wants the issue handled. For example, you could explain that the employee is unwell and that alternative work arrangements have been put in place.

Employers should ensure that where a manager is genuinely worried a work health and safety risk exists, for example, there is potential for an employee to self-harm or there is a risk to other people, then assistance is sought from the EAPs, Manager Assist Programs or mental health service providers.

The following mental health service providers may be able to help.

Mental Health First Aid is an example of a practical program to support employees.

WorkSafe also has mental health resources which can provide information on legal duties, causes of workplace mental injury and creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Work-related stress and your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety, including hazards and risks associated with work-related stress.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.

More about your legal obligations

Related pages

This information is from 'Preventing and managing work-related stress: A guide for employers'. The complete guide is available in two formats.

Website version PDF guide