Opinion

Managing psychosocial risks should have the same priority as managing physical risks 

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Half of people who are off sick from work are suffering from stress, depression, or anxiety.


The latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show there were an estimated 914,000 cases due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2021/22. That’s an 11 per cent rise from the 822,000 cases in 2020/21.

An estimated 17 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22, which covers more than half of all working days lost due to work-related ill health across the same period.

HSE, Great Britain’s workplace regulator, has been warning of a growing crisis in stress and poor mental health. It launched a major campaign last year to remind employers of their legal responsibilities to assess and tackle risks at work and provide practical tools to support their employees’ mental health.

Liz Goodwill: "Since 2019, the total annual cost of poor mental health to employers has increased by 25 per cent."

HSE’s chief executive, Sarah Albon, said: “Stress and poor mental health is the number one cause of work-related ill health. The effects of stress, depression, and anxiety can have a significant impact on an employee’s life and on their ability to perform their best at work.

“Britain is one of the safest places in the world to work but we need all employers to do more and take seriously their responsibilities to support good mental health at work. That’s why improving mental health in the workplace is a key priority in our 10-year strategy ‘Protecting People and Places’, and why we’re developing new partnerships across industry to help employers support their employees.”

Tackling stress isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a legal obligation

There are three main reasons employers should be looking to prevent stress and support good mental health in business:
1. It’s the law
2. It’s good for business
3. It’s the right thing to do.

The legal position

Whether it’s a small business or a large corporation, the law requires all employers to prevent work-related stress to support good mental health in the workplace. They have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.

The bottom line

Since 2019, the total annual cost of poor mental health to employers has increased by 25 per cent, costing UK employers up to £56 billion a year – according to a report by Deloitte. Figures show employers can see a return of £5.30 on average for every £1 invested in mental health.

If employers don’t do anything about it, it will cost. That cost might be productivity, sickness absence, losing a valued member of the team if they’re not able to stay in work or from litigation costs such as an Employment Tribunal.

The right thing to do

It’s important to remember that in the end we’re all just people – and every one of us face pressures in and out of the workplace.

The Working Minds campaign calls for a culture change across Britain’s workplaces where recognising and responding to the signs of stress becomes as routine as managing workplace safety.

There are six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. Photograph: iStock

Proactive problem solving

HSE promotes preventative action, designing potential stressors out rather than reacting where a problem shows up. The earlier a potential problem can be identified and tackled the less impact it will have for the person and the business. Stress can affect any one at any level within the organisation so it’s important to involve everyone in the organisation when identifying and developing solutions for problems.

There are six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These are: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect someone’s ability to cope.

Get started with Working Minds

HSE is encouraging employers to prevent and tackle work-related stress by talking to their staff and taking action to address any stress risks they identify, and supporting employees with their mental health in the workplace, using the Working Minds five simple steps:
1. Reach out and have conversations
2. Recognise the signs and causes of stress
3. Respond to any risks identified by agreeing action points between employer and worker
4. Reflect on the actions taken – have things improved?
5. Make it Routine to check back in on how things are going.

Working together
Working Minds works collaboratively with a series of partners which have more than doubled since Working Minds was launched at HSE’s Work and Health Conference in November 2021.

When we launched Working Minds a year ago, we were under no illusion that stress, anxiety and depression were on the rise in the UK.

Our aim was to ensure psychosocial risks are treated the same as physical ones, that employers recognise their legal duty to prevent work-related stress to support good mental health in the workplace, and that they have the tools they need to achieve this.

Now, at a time when we have major challenges facing the country – leading to stressors both inside and outside of the workplace – welcoming new partners extends our reach and helps get our messages to businesses. These challenges can only be tackled successfully by working together – as organisations, as businesses, as teams.

In addition to the support from 19 partners to date, which includes Mind, Acas and International Stress Management Association (ISMAUK), Working Minds has also been endorsed by a world leading wellbeing expert in Professor Sir Cary Cooper.

Professor Cooper has written more than 450 scholarly articles for academic journals. He recently appeared on the HSE podcast with HSE chair Sarah Newton where he explained why Working Minds is vital for smaller businesses.

Professor Cooper told the One year of Working Minds podcast: “A lot of the bigger companies since the financial crisis of 2008-2015, have really treated stress at work and wellbeing much more seriously, much more strategically. There are now directors of health and wellbeing in many of the big companies and public sector bodies.

“Indeed, the NHS have; every hospital in the NHS has a non-executive director on its board who’s responsible for employee health and wellbeing. The real issue, and I think why this campaign is a really important one, is for the SME sector; small and medium sized enterprises, because they don’t have big HR departments, chief medical officers, and so on.”

Become a champion

This is a major challenge facing the country and change can’t be achieved in isolation. HSE’s research found that many employers are unaware of their legal duties or how to spot the signs of stress.

Employers, health and safety professionals and HR practitioners across all sectors of the economy can help raise awareness of how to prevent work-related stress and support good mental health. Join the 1,000 others signed up to date and become a Working Minds Champion.

Helpful resources:
Visit the Working Minds campaign website
Listen to the podcast
See HSE’s Stress Management Standards
Download a Talking Toolkit
Download our prevent stress at work poster
Download a risk assessment template
Download the mobile app

Liz Goodwill is Head of the work-related stress and mental health policy team at HSE

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