A worker’s response to stressors at work may be positive or negative for worker wellbeing, depending on a number of



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A worker’s response to stressors at work may be positive or 

negative for worker wellbeing, depending on a number of 

factors.  In the vast majority of instances, people adjust to 

stressors and are able to continue to perform their normal 

work duties. While stress itself is not a disease, if it becomes 

excessive and long-lasting it can lead to mental and physical 

ill-health.

Your legal obligations

Work-related stress leading to illness, injury and weakened 

organisational performance can come from many sources, 

both work and non-work. 

Employers are not able to control workers’ personal lives and 

the stressors they may encounter there, however they do have 

a legal obligation to minimise their exposure to work-related 

factors that can increase the risk of work-related stress.  

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 imposes a legal duty 

on business operators to do what is reasonably practicable to 

eliminate or minimise risk to worker health and safety. This 

duty extends to protecting workers from the risk of harm 

from stressors at work.

Risk factors for work-related stress

The key to reducing the effects of work-related stress is 

to understand what organisational, environmental and 

individual characteristics may lead to stress in the first place.



Organisational

It is important to understand the types of organisational 

stressors people can be exposed to when examining work-

related stress.  A simplified model is shown in Figure 1 (over 

page).

The model identifies the kinds of organisational stressors or 



risk factors that might lead to workers experiencing stress 

and sustaining psychological and/or physical ill-health.  

These risk factors are outlined in more detail in Tip Sheet 4.

Stress is a term that is widely used in everyday life and most people have 

some idea of its meaning.  Work-related stress is recognised globally as a 

major challenge to workers’ health, and the health of an organisation. 

Overview of work-related 

stress


Work-related stress describes the physical, mental 

and emotional reactions of workers who perceive 

that their work demands exceed their abilities 

and/or their resources (such as time, help/support) 

to do the work.  It occurs when they perceive they 

are not coping in situations where it is important 

to them that they cope.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

01

Department of Justice and Attorney-General



Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

www.worksafe.qld.gov.au



Risk Factors/Stressors

Work demands

Low control

Poor support

Lack of role clarity

Poorly managed relationships

Low levels of recognition and reward

Poorly managed change

Organisational justice

Psychological 

Injury/Illness

(depression, anxiety, 

burnout, emotional 

distress, suicide)



Environmental

Environmental stressors such as physical, chemical or 

biological agents can influence the worker’s comfort and 

performance in his or her work environment, and might 

contribute to a stress response. These factors can cause stress 

on their own, but often act to exacerbate a person’s response 

to another stressor. 

Types of environmental stressors include:

• noise 

•  temperature and humidity 

• lighting 

• vibration 

•  air quality 

•  unguarded plant and equipment. 



Figure 1.

Individual

People respond to stressors at work in different ways. It 

has been suggested that this can, in part, be related to 

physiological and/or personality factors (e.g. resilience). 

Worker well-being appears to benefit from a combination 

of challenging work, a supportive atmosphere and adequate 

resources.

While it is important to recognise these individual differences 

and to match jobs and tasks to individual abilities, this does 

not reduce an employers legal duty to minimise workers’ 

exposure to risk factors for work-related stress 

and to ensure the workplace does not exacerbate an existing 

illness.

Outcomes of exposure to work-related 

stress

Possible health effects

Short-lived or infrequent exposure to low-level stressors are 

not likely to lead to harm, in fact short-term exposure can 

result in improved performance. When stressful situations 

go unresolved, however, the body is kept in a constant state 

of stimulation, which can result in physiological and/or 

psychological changes and illness.  For example:

Physical: 

headaches, indigestion, tiredness, slow 

reactions, shortness of breath

Mental: 

difficulty in decision-making, forgetfulness 

Emotional: 

irritability, excess worrying, feeling of 

worthlessness, anxiety, defensiveness, anger, 

mood swings

Behavioural:  diminished performance, withdrawal 

behaviours, impulsive behaviour, increase in 

alcohol and nicotine consumption 

Common longer-term health issues linked to stress include 

cardiovascular disease (CVD), immune deficiency disorders, 

gastrointestinal disorders, psychiatric/psychological illness 

(PPI) and musculoskeletal disorders.

Possible effects on organisational performance

Increased stress levels of workers in an organisation can lead 

to diminished organisational performance as measured by the 

following: 

•  productivity and efficiency may be reduced

•  job satisfaction, morale and cohesion may decline

•  absenteeism and sickness absence may increase

•  there may be an increase in staff turnover 

•  accidents and injuries may increase

•  conflict may increase and the quality of relationships may 

decline

•  client satisfaction may be reduced



•  there may be increased health care expenditure and 

workers’ compensation claims.

The effects of work-related stress on organisational 

performance provide good reasons — above and beyond legal 

duties and the direct financial and human costs — as to why 

employers and other duty holders should reduce workers’ 

exposure to workplace stressors.

Physical Illness

(cardiovascular disease, 

musculoskeletal disorders, 

immune deficiency, 

gastrointestinal disorders)

Work-related Stress

© The State of Queensland (Department of Justice and Attorney-General) 2014.

Copyright protects this document. The State of Queensland has no objection to this material being reproduced, but asserts its right to be recognised as author of the original material and the right to have the material unaltered.

The material presented in this publication is distributed by the Queensland Government as an information source only. The State of Queensland makes no statements, representations, or warranties about the accuracy or completeness 

of the information contained in this publication, and the reader should not rely on it. The Queensland Government disclaims all responsibility and all liability (including, without limitation, liability in negligence) for all expenses, 

losses, damages and costs you might incur as a result of the information being inaccurate or incomplete in any way, and for any reason.

AEU 14/5347

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland 



www.worksafe.qld.gov.au

1300 369 915

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 asserts that, 

to properly manage exposure to risks, a person must:

1.  identify hazards

2.  assess risks if necessary

3.  control risks

4.  review control measures to ensure they are working  

as planned.

Many of the discussions about stress risk management 

have traditionally been focussed on individuals within an 

organisation who are already distressed. This approach is 

not only costly, but it also means that the employer or 

business operator may not be fully meeting their duty to 

eliminate or minimise risks to worker health and safety  

from being exposed to stressors at work.

The risk of work-related stress may be present in any 

workplace. Employers should apply the risk management 

process (illustrated in Figure 1) to eliminate or minimise, as 

far as reasonably practicable, exposure to potential causes of 

work-related stress.

Risk management is a four-step process for controlling exposure to health 

and safety risks associated with hazards in the workplace. 

A risk management approach 

to work-related 

stress


Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Figure 1. The four-step risk management process

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STEP

 4

Review control 

measures

STEP 

3

Control risks



STEP 

1

Identify hazards



MANAGEMENT

COMMITTMENT

STEP

 2

Assess risks

Image based on diagram from How to Manage Work Health and 

Safety Risks Code of Practice 2011

02

www.worksafe.qld.gov.au



Department of Justice and Attorney-General

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Step 1: Identify the hazards

The first step in the risk management process is to identify 

workplace hazards. This means looking for those things 

in the workplace that have the potential to cause harm.  

The source of work-related stress can be determined by 

evaluating: productivity levels, rates of absenteeism, 

separation rates/turnover, exit interviews, staff engagement/

morale, customer feedback, peak/seasonal demands, 

analysing incident reports and data trends.

Step 2: Assess and prioritise the risk

This step involves assessing the likelihood and consequences 

of injury or illness that may result from exposure to work-

related stressors. Stressors or risk factors for work-related 

stress include:

 •  work demands (emotional, mental, physical)

•  low control

•  poor support 

•  lack of role clarity

•  poorly managed change

•  poorly managed relationships

•  low levels of recognition and reward 

•  organisational injustice. 



How to conduct a risk assessment

Risk factors for work-related stress can be assessed by 

understanding worker complaints, observing interactions 

between workers, gaining feedback from workers, having 

one-on-one discussions with workers and through the use of 

focus groups or a worker survey.  

  

Findings from focus groups or worker surveys would then 



inform a decision about the likelihood and consequences of 

injury or illness from exposure to work-related stress and 

make it clear which risk factors are contributing to that risk.

Step 3: Control risks

After assessing the risk and determining which factor(s) have 

the greatest contribution to that risk, the most appropriate 

control measure(s) that are reasonably practical in the 

circumstances need to be selected and implemented. When 

selecting a particular control, it is important to be able to 

justify why it was chosen over a different measure. 

For work-related stress, deciding on control measures usually 

means altering a problem risk factor.  For instance, reducing 

work demands, increasing the level of control a worker has 

over his or her job, and increasing the amount of peer and/or 

supervisor support a person is receiving.

Examples of control measures to manage the risk of work-

related stress include:

•  improving supervisor/managerial skills through coaching, 

mentoring and/or training

•  planning workloads to meet potential demands

•  setting clear performance goals/accountability

•  ensuring role clarity and reassessing job descriptions

•  setting new or adjusting current HR procedures

•  providing assistance (e.g. an employee assistance 

program)

•  communicating policy and availability of assistance

•  checking understanding and implementation of changes

•  promoting effective early rehabilitation.

Step 4: Review control measures

The last step of the risk management process is to review 

the effectiveness of the control measures that have been 

implemented to ensure they are working as planned. 

When reviewing the effectiveness of control measures, it 

is important to weigh up whether the chosen controls are 

effective or whether they need some modification.

Risk management for work-related stress is not a one-off 

exercise, but something that must go on continually in the 

organisation. The dynamics and complexity of organisations 

can mean that changes such as a new supervisor, new 

workers or new processes or procedures can have marked, 

unexpected and unplanned effects on the stress levels 

of workers. 



Focus groups are small groups (typically 6-10 people) 

from across the organisation.  The purpose of a focus 

group is to provide a forum for assessing the risk 

of exposure to work-related stressors. This is done 

by considering each of the stress risk factors listed 

above and how they may or may not apply to their 

workplace. 

Another effective approach to finding out about 

work-related stressors is to administer a worker survey.  

Surveys can be an important tool in soliciting which 

stressors are present in the workplace, evaluating 

the degree to which they are affecting workers 

and pinpointing where they are originating. When 

undertaking a worker survey, one must consider the 

size of the group to be surveyed, how participants are 

to be selected and how survey results will be fed back 

to staff. Anonymity must be guaranteed throughout 

the entire process.

© The State of Queensland (Department of Justice and Attorney-General) 2014.

Copyright protects this document. The State of Queensland has no objection to this material being reproduced, but asserts its right to be recognised as author of the original material and the right to have the material unaltered.

The material presented in this publication is distributed by the Queensland Government as an information source only. The State of Queensland makes no statements, representations, or warranties about the accuracy or completeness 

of the information contained in this publication, and the reader should not rely on it. The Queensland Government disclaims all responsibility and all liability (including, without limitation, liability in negligence) for all expenses, 

losses, damages and costs you might incur as a result of the information being inaccurate or incomplete in any way, and for any reason.

AEU 14/5347

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland 

www.worksafe.qld.gov.au

1300 362 128


www.worksafe.qld.gov.au

There have been a number of conditions found to be critical 

to the success of this kind of intervention:

1.  visible organisational and management commitment to 

dealing with work-related stress 

2.  worker participation in all activities of stress 

management, including risk assessment or diagnosis, 

feedback, planning and implementing control options and 

interventions

3.  organisational communication and consultation regarding 

the risk management process.

Commitment

Senior management commitment is critical to the success of 

any significant organisational initiative. Programs such as 

risk management require resources (people, money and time), 

but in the long term have been shown to make considerable 

savings in resources.  They require the willing and 

appropriate commitment of these resources by management 

upfront. 

Gaining employee commitment through frequent and open 

communication is also a necessary part of successfully 

changing employee attitudes and/or behaviour.

Participation, communication and 

consultation 

The work health and safety legislation in Queensland 

has a strong focus on consultation in risk management, 

which means that employers are required to seek advice or 

information from the people involved with the risks in the 

workplace. When it comes to managing the risks of work-

related stress, you will be particularly dependent upon input 

from your workers to identify and address stressors at work 

and will see clear benefits from communicating with, and 

involving them in the process.

Consulting with workers at each stage of the risk 

management process will assist in achieving better health 

and safety outcomes because:

•  workers are in constant close contact with the day-to-day 

elements of the workplace and the work that can increase 

the risk of work-related stress — consulting with them will 

give you access to their first-hand experience 

•  seeking assistance from the workers will encourage them 

to accept and comply with the solutions that are to be put 

in place 

As well as an important legal duty, risk management for work-related stress 

can be an organisational improvement strategy. 

03

Implementing a work-related  



stress

 risk management process

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Department of Justice and Attorney-General

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland


•  workers can experience stress if they perceive that 

they have little control over their work and their work 

environment, and who do not feel supported in their 

workplace — communicating with them and seeking their 

participation in the risk management process very directly 

addresses the risk factors of low control and poor support.  

In this way the consultation process itself becomes part of 

the solution.

Ways to facilitate participation and 

consultation

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 formally provides 

for consultation through workplace health and safety 

representatives and committees, where these are required in 

your workplace. 

As well as using workplace health and safety representatives 

and committees, you can set up a specific communication 

and project management structure to oversee and implement 

the risk management process. This structure might include a 

senior steering committee and/or a working group.

Senior steering committee

A senior steering committee is a group of individuals 

drawn from those in senior management positions 

and strategic areas of the organisation, such as human 

resources, workplace health and safety and organisational 

communication, who are responsible for general operating 

policy, procedures and related matters affecting the 

organisation as a whole. It includes a ‘project champion’, 

who heads the committee and gives the project momentum.   

The purpose of a senior steering committee is to: 

•  provide overall guidance and direction for a project and 

to interface with the organisation at a senior level about 

the project

•  provide tangible evidence of management support.

Employers may want to consider establishing a steering 

committee to oversee the stress risk management process 

and to ensure that the recommendations for changes are 

implemented strategically and earnestly.



Working group

The working group includes the people who more actively 

facilitate the process on the ground. Working groups are 

an effective way of carrying out a potentially large-scale 

strategic process like work-related stress risk management.  

They encourage full and active participation by the workers 

in the risk management process.

Feedback of results of the risk assessment

Providing feedback on the risk assessment to members of 

the organisation is crucial. This step helps ensure information 

about risk factors is used in designing, implementing and 

evaluating appropriate interventions.

Feedback may focus initially on the project champion and 

steering committee or working group, with discussions on 

how the results could be best positioned and presented.  

However this process should not be restricted to this group 

alone, with the promise of wider feedback an important 

factor in securing worker commitment to any interventions 

or risk reduction activities.

It is also important to seek worker input into the designing, 

implementing and evaluating of any control measures for 

managing risks associated with work-related stress.

The working group can: 

•  encourage worker participation

•  discuss perceptions and perspectives on work 

practices

•  coordinate focus group discussions or the 

distribution of surveys

•  review the results of surveys and other 

information provided to confirm or challenge the 

responses

•  analyse and prioritise areas where action is 

needed


•  using a collaborative approach involving workers 

and managers, develop an action plan to address 

the identified causes of work related stress

•  report to the Senior Steering Committee. 

© The State of Queensland (Department of Justice and Attorney-General) 2014.

Copyright protects this document. The State of Queensland has no objection to this material being reproduced, but asserts its right to be recognised as author of the original material and the right to have the material unaltered.

The material presented in this publication is distributed by the Queensland Government as an information source only. The State of Queensland makes no statements, representations, or warranties about the accuracy or completeness 

of the information contained in this publication, and the reader should not rely on it. The Queensland Government disclaims all responsibility and all liability (including, without limitation, liability in negligence) for all expenses, 

losses, damages and costs you might incur as a result of the information being inaccurate or incomplete in any way, and for any reason.

AEU 14/5347

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland 




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