Q&A: The £57million bill of stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace

This month is stress awareness month and thousands of new cases of stress, anxiety and depression are being reported in the workplace every year.

In the North East alone it is reported that 531,000 days are lost to stress, depression or anxiety costing around £57m to the local economy.

But exactly what rights do workers have and what duty of care do employers have to their staff?

Here Dr. Sarah Pickup, Senior Lecturer in Health, Safety and Wellbeing at the University of Sunderland, outlines workers’ entitlements and explains why an approach change is needed if we are to successfully tackle the issue. 

Q: What do the latest figures tell us about the levels of people off work due to mental health issues?

A: Stress itself is a response. Generally, it is a response to the presence of pressures which come from our home and personal lives as well as the work environment. Pressure and stress to a certain degree is fine and indeed healthy, however high levels of persistent stress is very dangerous and can lead to poor well-being, quite often in the form of anxiety or indeed depression.

What we know from current statistics is that rates of stress, depression or anxiety are significantly higher in England for 17/18 compared to the previous year. In the North East 1,630 employees per 100,000 workers reported stress, depression or anxiety caused, or made worse, by work and while this is not statistically different compared to the national average we are still seeing around 9,000 new cases in our region alone, with 233,000 nationally.

Regardless of current or past trends, that’s a lot. However, when we do look at the trends we are seeing a rise to such extent that stress, depression and anxiety now account for the largest proportion of ill health and working days lost in the UK, and that is worrying.

Q: Can you explain some of the reasons why mental health issues appear to be becoming so significant within the workplace?

A: Well, there is rarely just one cause. Generally, it is the combination of stressors – risk factors – combined with diminished resources or a reduced capacity to cope that creates the environment for stress to develop and ill health to manifest.

We must not lose sight of the fact that we bring to the workplace an element of pressure such as financial pressures, managing caring responsibilities with work and so on. However in the workplace workloads, work patterns and the work environment play a huge part. I think we are seeing more and more people taking on much larger roles and responsibilities especially following periods of change and restructuring.

Similarly, roles and responsibilities can become ambiguous over time. Change I think is a huge factor. Change can be a risk factor for wellbeing whether it is a large change, such as an organisational restructure, or small changes such as learning new skills and keeping up with technology.

Periods of change create uncertainty and disequilibrium and without support can become a problem. There are many other factors that often get forgotten about including the manner in which technology has changed the way we manage our work, often blurring the boundary between work and home and leading to much longer hours.

Q: Mental health and wellbeing has received a lot of attention in recent years, so why do the figures remain so high?

A: This is a tricky one. It could be partially artificial in that our efforts to increase awareness has led to greater recognition and reporting. On the other hand, could it be that our efforts to date are just not working?

While both are entirely plausible my focus is on the latter. We have discussed mental health and mental health in the workplace for some time now and I think this has been in the main successful in raising awareness, changing stereotypes and developing tolerance.

We have seen more focus on rehabilitating people back to work and building resilience to support employees, giving them the tools to manage stress and offer counselling services. However, this is just not enough.

If we can identify hazards in the workplace and assess their risk of injury and put measures in place to eliminate or mitigate the risks why aren’t we doing this for mental health?

Why invest so much money in reactive and intermediary solutions if we do not address the underlying causes. I think while some organisations still need to catch up, many need to do more at reducing the risks in the first place. The problem is we are asking organisations to do this at a time when resources are tight.

I think another really important point to raise is that identifying assessing and controlling stress risk factors requires not only a knowledge of these concepts but also it requires front line leaders to take an important and interactive role for which many may not have the interpersonal skills to do it justice.

Think about it, in situations where supervisors and frontline managers have been promoted into positions potentially because of their technical abilities, however now imagine supervisors having difficulties in emotional conversations with employees.   That interaction is very daunting for leaders if we don’t invest time and energy in developing their softer skills.

Q: Has the 2008 recession played a role in the current high figures. If so, how?

A: There has been an attempt to look at the impact of the recession on workplace well-being. During the recession threats to jobs or indeed job status, combined with uncertainty and change, are likely to cause extreme stress. Where we are now is in the aftermath of this difficult time, and we have seen organisations having to restructure and make efficiencies. This will impact by seeing people working longer hours, the blurring of the lines between work and home.

Q: Does my employer have a duty of care to support me if I’m having work-related issues such as stress and anxiety?

A: Yes absolutely, despite the moral obligations that employers have to look after workers’ wellbeing, employers also have duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to assess risks to ill health, which includes stress, however there is no specific law that covers workplace stress and for this reason it is very difficult to bring criminal cases against employers.

However, employers also have a common law duty of care to look after the health and safety of their employees. And this does extend to mental health.

Q: I’ve tried explaining to my line manager about the problems but they don’t seem bothered. Is there further action I can take to get help?

A: It is important to make your employer aware of conditions or events that are contributing to your health and wellbeing. An employer can only realistically be held liable when they are made aware of the issues.Indeed, the concept of foreseeability plays an important role in later civil claims. Ideally concerns should be raised with the line manager, however when this does not work out, a meeting with your HR representative is a next step option.

In all cases it is important to keep a record of meetings. Ideally such meetings need to be flexible and supportive whereby an employee discusses the current experience and seeks the support from the employer which could be as simple as a flexible working arrangement, some additional training, or a review of the workload.

Ultimately if there is no progress you are left with a few options. Employees have a right to make a claim for compensation against an employer if uncorrected work related stress has led to some form of personal injury or ill health – or if it has led to a form of constructive dismissal, however the process is not easy to bring.

Should the stress be the result of some form of disability which is classed as a protective characteristic under the Equality Act then there is also additional protection in this circumstance. I think when it gets to such a situation where the employee is left thinking about the future within an organisation then it becomes extremely important that professional advice is sought.

Q: With such a large number of working days lost to these issues, are businesses not costing themselves money by not addressing them?

A: Absolutely. In the North East it is reported that 531,000 days are lost to stress, depression or anxiety this equates to approximately 1,455 years of lost work and around £57m lost in the local economy alone.

Quite often reducing or indeed eliminating the sources of stress can be achieved through relatively inexpensive and creative interventions. Yes, it is likely that for some of the issues additional staff may be necessary, which is a cost to the business. However, when you compare this to the cost to organisations associated with sickness absences then it is well worth it.

Q: What will happen if we don’t address these issues in the near future?

A: The current trends around workplace stress, anxiety and depression suggests that it is on the increase and therefore if, as a country, we don’t do anything more to tackle these issues at source those figures are going to increase further.

I think it becomes easy to talk about these concepts as numbers and lines on graphs, however each one of those numbers represents a person, a person who is not just experiencing small amounts of stress but stress to a point that it is unmanageable and it’s actually affecting their mental health.

I also think it’s easy to forget that those impacts are not isolated to this one individual, there is a rippling effect when an individual suffers from mental health, it can affect friends, family and other work colleagues. It can lead to unhelpful coping behaviours such as individuals becoming more socially withdrawn, poor eating habits and indeed drinking and smoking.

Overall it’s not a total surprise that we are seeing such high numbers of UK employees experiencing workplace mental health difficulties, the signs have been there for a long time and we are now seeing those figures rise to extremely alarming rates. If we don’t do something soon, something meaningful, those figures are just going to increase and the lives of many UK employees are going to be adversely affected.

To find out more about Health, Safety and Wellbeing programmes at the University of Sunderland, click here

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