Employers must do more to address workers’ mental health

Out-Law Analysis | 01 Dec 2022 | 12:20 pm | 3 min. read

The latest statistics from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlight a concerning upwards trend in instances of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety.

Out of an estimated 1.8 million cases of work-related ill health in 2021/22, more than 900,000 were due to work related stress, depression and anxiety – making poor mental the number one reason for work-related illness in the UK. Employers must take note and do more to address the situation, amid increasing potential for enforcement action.

The HSE statistics

The latest figures concerning work related stress, depression and anxiety show an 11.2% increase on the previous year, affecting 2,750 people per 100,000 workers in the UK. Estimates indicate that approximately 17m working days have been lost due to work-related mental health issues; an average of 18.6 days lost per case. At the same time, the number of new cases of work-related ill stress, depression and anxiety fell by 17.5% on the previous year, from 451.000 in 2020/21 to 372,000. However, rates had been increasing in the years prior to the pandemic, demonstrating the long-term systemic nature of the issue.

According to the HSE, the industries with higher-than-average rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety were public administration and defence, human health/social work and education. Each of these industries had an incidence rate of more than 2,500 cases per 100,000 workers against a national average incident rate of 2,000. The new data also shows that there were 123 fatal injuries at work in 2021/22, an increase on the preceding year of almost 11%. Despite the increase, the UK continues to have one of the lowest incident rates of work-related fatalities in Europe, however, the HSE will take note of this in their enforcement activities.

An additional 565,000 workers suffered a non-fatal injury at work in 2021/22. Construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing, manufacturing and transportation and storage continue to account for the bulk of fatalities.  Falls from a height, being struck by a moving vehicle and being struck by a moving, including flying or falling, object continue as the three main causes of fatal injury, between them accounting for over half of all fatal injuries each year since at least 2001/02.

A total of 1.8 million people suffered from a work-related illness in 2021/22, translating into a total of 36.8 million working days lost and an associated economic cost of £18.8 billion. Of the 1.8 million people suffering from a work-related illness nearly a third believed that their ill health was caused or made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Employers must do more

Whilst the mental health of workers has been climbing the boardroom agenda in recent years, the HSE’s latest statistics  demonstrate that more needs to be done.

Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees so far as is reasonably practicable. This duty extends to mental health as well as physical health and as in all safety and health issues there can be no one size fits all approach to mental health and wellbeing; risk assessments and mitigations must be tailored to the particular business and worker profile,

To raise awareness of the requirement for all employers to support good mental health in the workplace, the HSE launched the Working Minds campaign last year. The campaign brings together a range of resources to help businesses and workers understand how to prevent work related stress and encourage good mental health. In addition to the resources available at a national level, considerable work has been done by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which issued the “World Mental Health” report earlier in the year. The report identified that 15% of those suffering with a mental health condition worldwide were of working age. 

A joint policy brief by the WHO and International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests a number of practical and low-cost strategies for employers to support those with mental health conditions to thrive in the workplace including providing flexible working options, involving workers in decisions about their jobs and setting achievable deadlines and targets.

Last year also saw the publication of international standard ISO 45003, which sets out internationally agreed guidelines and practical guidance for managing psychosocial risk within an occupational health and safety management system, to prevent work-related injury and ill health and promote wellbeing at work. It gives practical guidance for employers on the organisational response to the effective management of ‘psychosocial’ risk. While we have not seen any prosecutions from the HSE in relation to mental health risks at work, its continued and increasing presence in the statistics indicates that there may be mental health related enforcement action on the horizon.

Organisations should take note of the wealth of advice regarding mental health at work available from sources such as the HSE, ISO, WHO and ILO and ensure that health and safety – both physical and mental – is properly addressed. At a minimum, current policies/processes should be reviewed for data gathering and analysis. However, mental health is not just a human resources issue and businesses should ensure they are set up to deal with it on a multidisciplinary level involving human resources, occupational safety and health, legal and risk professionals.

This is a complex and developing area of risk. Businesses need to know the scale of the problem they face and so should conduct regular internal and external audits to assist with this, ensuring their response is able to meet the evolving circumstances. 

Co-written by Hannah Frost of Pinsent Masons.

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