The rise of occupational stress. What your employer needs to do to reduce a “public health emergency”

In her final annual report before she left the role last year, England’s then-Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, declared mental health issues to be a public health emergency.

While such an announcement could be seen as being overly-dramatic, it is supported by evidence.

The impact of occupational stress

For example, according to the latest figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 12.8 million working days lost due to work-related ill health in 2018/19. On average, each person suffering from stress, depression and anxiety (what we will call ‘occupational stress’) took around 21.2 days off work. This accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018/19. In total, 23.5 million working days were lost in 2018/19 due to all types of work-related ill-health.

We have been unable to find a reliable estimate on what this cost the UK economy, but it would be fair to assume that it is in the billions of pounds.

Occupational stress issues can be particularly prevalent in certain roles too. For example, BBC Radio Tees revealed last week that Cleveland Police officers are spending more time on long term sick leave with mental health issues than for any other reason. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request showed that the force had 132 officers absent last year because of mental health, compared to 62 for all other sicknesses.

This trend is reflected across all of the emergency services, as another BBC report, last year showed that sick leave for emergency services personnel due to mental health issues rose by a third between 2014 and 2018. It is understandable that emergency services personnel would have high rates of occupational stress given they deal with traumatic situations on a daily basis. However, the HSE statistics also show that those working in other sectors, such as the Civil Service and education sectors, also have high instances of sick leave due to mental health issues.

Furthermore, when analysing the 2018/19 figures, the HSE concluded that;

Work-related stress, depression or anxiety continues to represent a significant ill health condition in the workforce of Great Britain … The reasons cited as causes of work-related stress are also consistent over time with the workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change as the primary causative factors.

Clearly then, a range of factors that are consistent across different industries is causing this rise in occupational stress.

What employers need to do

Therefore, it is for employers to find ways to alleviate the stresses being placed on workers. While it is reasonable to expect employees to work hard and give their best, it is unreasonable to expect workers to sacrifice their health, either physical or mental, for a paycheque. In particular, achieving a good work-life balance has actually been found to improve productivity.

This has been seen recently in the calls to create a four-day week. For example, in November 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, switched its 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week and maintained their pay. A study of the trial found that productivity increased in the four days they worked so there was no drop in the total amount of work done. Similarly, Microsoft’s Japan office moved to a four-day week for the month of August last year and found that the shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by 40%.

While it may not be feasible for all employers to adopt a four-day working week, flexible working practices could arguably also help to alleviate work-related mental ill-health by allowing employees to more easily fit their work around other aspects of their lives, such as the need to take children to and from school, medical appointments and the like. Workers should also be aware that, after you have worked for your employer for 26 weeks, you are legally entitled to request flexible working too. It is for your employer to then decide whether they say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and give you reasons for this decision.

Furthermore, in addition to mentioning workload, lack of support from managers and organisational change as factors causing workers mental ill health, the HSE report also highlights “tight deadlines” and “too much responsibility”. It is entirely understandable that an employee’s mental health could be adversely affected if they are set unrealistic targets, such as tight deadlines, or are feeling overwhelmed by too much responsibility given to them by management who are then unsupportive.

Ultimately, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to protect the health, safety and welfare of staff from anything that may cause them harm. This includes an employee’s mental health too.

If it is found that an employer has failed to take all reasonable measures to fulfil this duty of care to his/her staff, the employee affected can claim against their employer for the damage caused to them. This, among other things, can include for loss of earnings while the employee was away from work due to mental ill-health caused by the job they were in.

How we can help you

At The Compensation Experts, we work with specialist legal firms who have a proven track record in making successful compensation claims against employers whose workplaces have caused its staff to suffer from mental ill-health. We and the legal firms we work with have a lot of experience in these cases and so, are well-placed to help you get the maximum amount of compensation you are entitled to. After your initial consultation with our advisors about your particular circumstances, which is done on a free no-obligation basis, we will match you with the firm who best suits the circumstances of your case.

If you have had to take sick leave from work due to mental health issues and feel this was because of the working environment, you may be entitled to compensation. To find out if you may have a claim, do not hesitate to get in touch with The Compensation Experts via the contact form on our website or by calling 0161 413 8765.