Mental well-being: questions and answers

A list of common questions in relation to work-related stress, mental well-being and HSENI's Management Standards approach.

What is work-related stress?

Work-related stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.

What is mental well-being?

The World Health Organisation define mental health as: A state of well-being in which every individual realised his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

Is there a legal requirement to carry out a wellbeing risk assessment?

There is no legislation that specifically mentions work-related stress however under Article 4 of the Health and Safety at Work Order (NI) 1978 employers have a duty to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare of employees at work.

Additionally there are duties placed upon employers to assess risks to health – including mental health. These duties are contained within regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000.

In 2004 the HSE developed a set of principles (The Management Standards) to help employers comply with the law.

What are the Management Standards?

The Management Standards are six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence:

Demands – issues like workload, work pattern and the work environment.

Control – concerned with the level of autonomy an employee has surrounding aspects of their work.

Support – includes things like the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the employer, line management and colleagues.

Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour including bullying and harassment.

Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles.

Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

Will HSENI prosecute employers who do not use the Management Standards approach?

HSENI's approach to tackling work-related stress is to provide advice, guidance and practical help towards a potential solution. It is designed as an easy to follow process which includes supporting guidance, forms and tools to allow any organisation to carry out a mental well-being risk assessment using the management standards.

HSENI will undertake enforcement action where duty holders fail to carry out the legally required suitable and sufficient risk assessment. An organisation would be unlikely to be subject to enforcement action by HSENI provided it could demonstrate it had adequately assessed the risks and was taking steps to address any problems identified.

Can I use a different approach?

Yes, but any alternative approach must include a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. If you can answer yes to all the questions below then your approach is likely to be considered a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for work-related stress:

  • do you include all the steps in the risk assessment process
  • do you focus on prevention and organisational level solutions
  • do you include provision for dealing with other issues for example individual issues
  • do you ensure commitment from all parties
  • do you have arrangements to identify those aspects of work that are known to be risk factors for work-related stress
  • do you involve the workforce by:
    • asking their views regarding good and bad features of workplace conditions
    • seeking your employees suggestions, advice and comments on potential solutions to problems for example improvements to working conditions or changes in the way work is organised
    • ensuring that your employees are empowered to contribute and feel that their views are listened to and acted on
    • communicating outcomes (for example action plans)
  • do you seek to develop and adopt solutions that are ‘reasonably practicable’
  • do you provide documentation to show what you have done at each stage of the process and that you are implementing the recommended actions

What does the process entail?

The Management Standards are based on a risk assessment process, which involves several stages. These include:

  • creation of a steering group to implement the project
  • preparation of the organisation in advance of the survey and focus groups
  • a survey, using the HSENI Indicator Tool
  • the facilitation of focus groups
  • developing a prioritised action plan to address identified issues
  • continuous monitoring and reviewing to ensure that the action plan, which is a live document, is in place and is effective

What is meant by primary/secondary/tertiary intervention?

Primary interventions are aimed at eliminating or modifying workplace stressors to remove or reduce their negative impact on all individuals in the organisation.

Secondary interventions focus on increasing the awareness and coping skills of the individual for example stress management training, line management training and health promotion activities.

Tertiary interventions are concerned with the treatment and rehabilitation of distressed individuals for example counselling or return to work policies.

What is the indicator tool?

The HSENI Indicator Tool is a questionnaire comprising of 35 questions, to be completed anonymously by staff. The 35 questions rate employees’ perceptions of the six key aspects of work which can lead to stress.

The result scores range numerically from 1 (poor) to 5 (desirable).  A higher score indicates a better performance and a lower score may indicate a potential problem area.

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a selection of staff from across the organisation representing all job types and grades. Each focus group consists of up to 10 staff from similar backgrounds within the organisation selected randomly. During focus groups staff are invited to draw on their experiences and identify potential solutions to any of the issues raised. Focus groups last approximately 90 minutes.

How do I select focus groups?

There is no definitive methodology in the selection of focus groups. HSENI recommend a random selection of names from the organisational chart based on the demographics selected by the organisation. Staff selected for focus groups should carry out similar work and be the same grade.

Do I discuss terms and conditions of employment?

No. Before a focus group begins the facilitator should manage the expectations of the group by explaining that the process focuses on managing well-being at an organisational level.  It is not the forum for staff to raise individual concerns or concerns about pay and conditions.  During the focus groups the facilitator should only discuss concerns regarding the six management standards and ask for potential solutions to any concerns raised.

How can I identify hot spots in my organisation?

The indicator tool allows you to select up to 12 demographics. Demographics enables an employer to apply filters and identify if there are particular areas of concern. When selecting demographics no group of less than 10 employees can be identified. If a demographic has less than 10 employees the filter will not apply and the results will revert to the organisational averages.

How long does it take?

This will depend on a number of factors including the number of employees; the number of premises in your company and any specific requirements you may have. 

How much does it cost to implement the Management Standards?

While there is no hard charge for this service, senior management commitment to the process is required. Staff should be encouraged to participate and allocated the time necessary to attend survey sessions and focus groups.

Will the Management Standards make it easier for employees to take legal action for work-related stress?

No. The Management Standards approach should actually make it easier for employers to demonstrate they have acted reasonably – provided they have followed the Management standards or something similar.

As an employer what do I do about stress outside work?

An employer has no legal obligation to deal with non-work-related stress, however many of the business costs associated with work-related stress can still occur due to an individual suffering from non-work-related stress.

Your employee is not obliged to tell you their personal problems, but there are some practical things you could do to support them:

  • be sympathetic and proactive - arrange a confidential meeting with the person, allowing them the opportunity to discuss any problems they wish and allowing you time to voice your own concerns, it may help to clarify whether the person’s problems are work-related or personal
  • be flexible - consider offering the person more flexible working hours, or even offer them some paid time off to deal with their problems
  • offer outside support - if appropriate, you could suggest they visit their doctor and allow them time off to do so, you could also suggest support groups
  • outline the support and services your organisation offers - for example, your organisation may have a work–life balance initiative in place, these are benefits, policies, or programmes that help balance out job demands and a healthy life outside work - they can include:


      • childcare services
      • flexible working arrangements
      • family leave policies
      • employee assistance programmes
      • fitness programmes

Programmes of this kind can work effectively to:

      • retain staff
      • improve morale
      • reduce sickness absence stress
      • increase productivity and commitment

Is stress a reportable industrial injury under RIDDOR?

No, neither work-related stress nor stress-related illnesses are reportable under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (NI) 1997 (RIDDOR).

This is because the causes of stress-related ill health are usually extremely complex and linking conditions to specific types of work activity would be very difficult. This does not mean that stress cannot be raised with the enforcing authorities nor does it mean that a complaint cannot be made which could result in an investigation. While work-related stress is not reportable, employers have duties to assess and manage the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities.

I provide an Employee Assistant Programme (EAP) is that enough?

No. Providing an EAP is a tertiary intervention. The management standards approach is a primary intervention and focuses on prevention. In 2007 case Intel Corporation UK Ltd v Tracy Ann Daw the court of appeal found an employer negligent. The court stated the mere fact that an employer offers a counselling service does not automatically absolve the employer. Whether or not the counselling services are enough to discharge an employer’s duty depends on the facts of each case.

Do HSENI investigate individual cases of work-related stress?

No. Applying health and safety legislation to an individual case of work-related stress is not straight forward because it is difficult to prove a causal link between particular causes and possible workplace stressors to the necessary standard of proof ("beyond reasonable doubt") required for health and safety legislation.

Often individual complaints relate to bullying, harassment or other employment relations issues which are normally managed within the framework of wider employment legislation. HSENI does not have the power to investigate individual employee relations cases. In these circumstances LRA are better placed to provide advice on such matters.

How do I get involved?

For more information please contact a mental well-being at work advisor.

More on this topic

About work-related stress

Find out more about:

HSE Management Standards

Find out more about:

HSENI and work-related stress

Find out more about:

Good Practice

Good practice guidance on:


HSENI run a number of different webinars on work-related stress. Details of these including dates and registration can be found on the events page:

Small businesses

The HSENI risk assessment tool, is designed for organisations with fifty or more staff. HSENI has provided additional advice for small businesses.