The HSE figures for 2016/17 are out and the headline is that “for the first time, stress became the UK’s biggest work-related illness, overtaking musculoskeletal disorder cases.”
The HSE attribute an annual cost to the UK economy of £14.9B from all work-related injuries and ill-health with around 65% of the total arising from new cases of ill-health. These costs include both the ‘human’ cost (the impact on the individual’s quality of life) and ‘financial’ costs arising from lack of production and healthcare.
A Government commissioned report into mental health at work was released in October, 2017. This report (Thriving at work: The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers) puts “the cost of poor mental health to the economy at between £74 billion and £99 billion per year”. These costs included the cost to employers (between £33B and £42B) and to the Government (between £24B and £27B). The costs to employers in this report includes the loss of productivity due to people still working but suffering from poor mental health issues whereas the HSE figures included loss of productivity due to days off only.
The point of this post is not to resolve the different estimates of the cost arising from work-related stress (staggering as they are), but to explore root causes and potential solutions.
What’s with all the stress?
Are you old enough to remember working in the 1990s? I am. I also remember the bliss of an annual two week holiday, no phone, no email, nothing but the sound of the sea lapping against the shore. Now? I can’t remember the last day when I didn’t check email, holiday or no holiday.
The world has changed. Technology enabled that change but, for better or worse, we’re an ‘always on’ society.
If you’re a follower of Simon Sinek, he connects the lack of our job security (and related stress) to the fact that our leaders no longer protect us (as evidenced by employee redundancies). If you have 11 minutes, he outlines his thoughts in this video using caveman society as an illustration of a better model. If you don’t have 11 minutes I guess you’re proving the point…
Perhaps modernity (and the breakdown of modern society) is to blame for our stress levels, or working from home which we covered in a recent post. Whatever the root cause, it’s difficult to put that genie back in the bottle.
So what’s the answer?
Good question. The Stevenson/Farmer report set out six mental health core standards:
- Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan;
- Develop mental health awareness among employees;
- Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling;
- Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development;
- Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors;
- Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.
These are all excellent recommendations and the Government already supports disability discrimination at work [where mental health is the disability] with legislation. Indeed, Safety & Health Practitioner ran a recent article outlining recent prosecutions under this legislation.
The Government is doing a good job with respect to this aspect of health and safety. But what’s going to happen to implement the six core standards laid out by Stevenson/Farmer? My guess is they’ll get passed down to health and safety professionals to add to the unending list of other initiatives already on their plate, likely without additional resources. We covered work-related stress in a recent article focussing on the health and safety professional and also did so in this webinar.
The answer is not to pile more work on the already overworked health and safety team (without true board level support and with a potentially resistant workforce), but to make health and safety a strategic issue led from the top, rather than the operational function it so often is today. This is turn requires a significant change for the better in the health and safety culture of most organisations.
How can you, the health and safety professional, make that happen? We’ve just created an eBook that addresses this very issue and provides real, practical advice. It’s called, “Beyond Compliance: A Guide to Changing the Health and Safety Culture in Your Organisation.” You can learn more and download your free copy here.