More than half of Britain’s working days lost in 2019/20 were due to mental ill-health, according to latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The rate of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 828,000 workers last year, accounting for 17.9 million working days lost.
Workload, lack of support, violence, threats or bullying and changes at work are thought to be the main causes of work-related stress, depression or anxiety based on Labour Force Survey data.
Speaking to IOSH magazine, Emily Pearson, founder and managing director of corporate mental health training consultancy Our Mind’s Work, said while the new stats are worrying, they're not surprising.
Since the HSE started collecting data on work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2001 – two years after the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations came into force, which required employers to carry stress risk assessments and act upon them – there was a steady decrease until 2006 when it returned sharply to 2001 levels, where they remained with slight variation until 2015, explained Emily.
'Despite numerous mental health awareness campaigns and programmes over the past five years, work-related stress has increased,' she added. 'So what's gone wrong from 2010 to 2019 when the largest increase has occurred? Well, people feel more able categorise what they’re experiencing, self diagnose and share this information with others. So as the stigma reduces and awareness increases, this is only to be expected. But it doesn’t account for all of it.'
She believes the second problem is a lack of enforcement and a reluctance to put work-related stress in the same category as say, a broken leg.
“We cannot allow this to be ignored any longer – the impact of COVID-19 on people’s mental health are concerning enough without workplaces contributing to the mental health crisis we are sleep walking towards,' adds Emily. 'Employers must take ownership of the problem by implementing a robust strategy that provides evaluation of the problem areas and education, skills and training and the tools to deliver the solutions effectively, reducing work related stress before it turns into a psychological injury.'
Lowest fatality rate on record
While mental ill-health is on the increase, the HSE's annual statistics confirmed there were 111 fatal injuries at work in 2019/20, down from 143 the year before. The overall fatal injury rate has decreased to 0.34 deaths per 100,000 workers in Great Britain, compared to 0.45 in 2018/19.
However, the regulator said that the ‘striking’ year-on-year fall may not reflect a major shift in the inherent dangerousness of workplaces, and points out that COVID-19 potentially reduced the death toll by suppressing the economy in February and March.
The first 10 months of 2019/20 were already on track for a lower annual number of deaths, the HSE said, but February and March recorded a particularly low number compared to the historical average for the time of year.
The 2019/20 figures do not include RIDDOR-reportable deaths linked to contracting COVID-19 in the workplace, as these will be counted alongside other deaths from occupational disease.
The HSE plans to publish data on work-related COVID-19 deaths ‘at a later date’.
HSE safety fines drop
The report also reveals that safety fines from 325 HSE prosecutions totalled £35.8 million in 2019/20, a decline from £55 million in 2018/19 and £77 million in 2017/18.
Reflecting on convictions in previous years, Kevin Elliott, head of health and safety at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, noted that the HSE prosecuted 660 cases with fines totalling £38 million in 2015/16 – before the sentencing guidelines came into force, the effect of which was to significantly increase the potential level of fines imposed for health and safety offences.
'It does seem that the HSE simply lacks the resource to fulfil its enforcement role,' he told IOSH magazine. It would be very dangerous to conclude that the significant drop in prosecutions is because the workplace is now safer.'