The latest annual injury and ill health statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have been published. The annual statistics, compiled by HSE from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and other sources, cover work-related ill health, workplace injuries, working days lost, costs to Britain and enforcement action taken.
Naturally I am interested in what these statistics tell us about work-related stress. This is difficult to measure so the HSE uses two different data sources for which to conduct analysis. The preferred data source is the LFS; a household survey of around 37,000 households per quarter across Great Britain which provides information about the labour market. HSE commissions a suite of questions in the LFS to gain a view of work-related illness based on individuals’ perceptions. The LFS provides national estimates and corresponding rates of the overall prevalence of self-reported work-related illness (both long standing and new cases) during the previous 12 months.
HSE supplements the LFS data with information collected on work-related stress through the Health and Occupation Research Network for general practitioners across Great Britain. This network asks reporting GPs to assess whether new cases of mental ill-health presented in their surgeries are work-related, and if so, what was the work-related cause of this disorder.
The 2016/17 figures show that 1.3 million workers were suffering from work related ill-health and there were 609,000 workplace injuries. The subsidiary report focusing on mental health found that in the same year, 526,000 workers reported they suffer from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing). The study also found that 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17.
Summarised in seven paragraphs 1. Working days lost due to stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40% of all work-related ill-health cases and 49% of all working days lost due to ill.
2. The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety were work-load pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support (2009/10-2011/12)
3. The general practitioners network (2013-2015) undertook an analysis of work-related mental ill-health cases by precipitating events and diagnosis. They concluded that workload pressures were the predominant factor, in agreement with the LFS, with work relationships and changes at work significant factors too.
4. Professional occupations had a higher rate of work-related stress than other types of jobs, such as sales and customer service or administrative jobs. For the three-year period averaged over 2014/15-2016/17, the Professional occupations category had 2,010 cases per 100,000 works compared with 1,230 cases for all occupational groups.
5. In the three year period 2014/15-2016/17 the average prevalence of work-related SDA for males was 1,170 cases and for females 1,880 per 100,000 workers.
6. For males, the 16-24 years (720 cases per 100,000) had statistically significantly lower relates that male persons combined in this period. The age category 45-54 years was significantly higher at a rate of 1,440.
7. Within the female age categories 16-24 (1,110 cases) and 55+ (1,420 cases) were statistically significantly lower than the rate for all females. The 35-44 years rate of 2,430 cases per 100,000 workers was statistically significantly higher than the all-female rate.
Why this matters Ill-health and mental ill-health come at a cost. Cost to the individual (themselves and their families), cost to business and ultimately a cost to a country. It makes sense therefore to reduce workplace stress – employee health is generally recognised as a key business risk - but it isn’t just sensible, protecting an employee’s health is a moral and legal obligation.
However although employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work (which includes risk assessments and taking action to control those risks), since I have been in the workplace (20years+) I have never seen one undertaken, even at a strategic level.
I have written workplace stress on a return to work note twice (two separate organisations). The first time I was asked to change it, as it would result in a raft of occupational health questions, the second time I was told by my manager to put it on as it was the truth but no one followed up! And I am someone who dared to write it on a note; according to recent research opening up about your mental health puts you at risk of dismissal, demotion or disciplinary action.
Is it any wonder then that there has been a decline in occupational accidents but the same cannot be for said for work-related mental ill? Workers are silent, unprotected and/or ignored.
However there's currently a lot going on in the stress awareness and mental resilience arena and whilst this may signal that organisations are identifying work-related stress as an issue (and throwing money at it), we need to do more than offer people a way to recognise and manage their stress. Increasing people’s self-awareness and emotional intelligence is great but it is not going to the heart of the matter.
It doesn’t tackle the cause; it may enable the person concerned to recognise, manage and function despite pressures but its responding to the effect and at some point will no longer work.
Organisations need to go further, look to the cause and put in place risk management actions just as the HSE recommends. As Christa Sedlatschek (2017), Director, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work says "taking action at the workplace level has far greater impact and coverage for all staff than the provision of “fruit and pilates” that will only be taken up by a few." Policies and actions to ensure manageable workloads, tech downtime, a worklife balance and good staff relations are at the heart of the solution.
But let’s not put it all on the organisation. I, like Mental Health England believe, we all have a role to play. According to Investors in People Health and Wellbeing Good Practice Guide, managers as leaders, coaches and role models, play a vital role in establishing the culture of an organisation. They therefore need to both practice self-care behaviours themselves but also be confident dealing with others' mental wellbeing issues.
And all of us need to learn how to recognise likely pressure points and our symptoms of stress. Afterall we spend more time at work than we do asleep so we owe it to ourselves to look after each other when we are there.