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Workplace stress | Why employers should put mental health front and centre in 2024

Written by Susan Doran on 24 January 2024

Recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal that stress, depression and anxiety account for roughly half (49%) of all work-related ill-health cases. Moreover, these conditions are responsible for 54% of all working days lost, highlighting the prevalence of poor mental health within and workplace and the urgent need for effective management strategies.

While the statistics show that some sectors such as human health and social work activities, public administration and defence, and education have higher reported rates of stress, it is a pervasive issue affecting all industry sectors.

Recognising this, in 2022, the HSE identified “reducing work-related ill health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress” as one of its five key objectives within its 10-year strategy. Employers can therefore expect that the regulator will channel its efforts, awareness campaigns, and inspections throughout 2024 and beyond towards addressing psychosocial risk and emotional wellbeing at work.

For organisations, this renewed focus may require a shift in perspective. Historically, the concept of ‘health’ in the workplace has been narrowly defined, primarily focusing on occupational diseases. However, the HSE is urging a broader understanding of health to incorporate mental wellbeing, too. Indeed, while health and safety legislation traditionally emphasises employers’ obligations in regard to safety, there is now a notable shift towards protecting overall health.

This shift has, in large part, been prompted by the sluggish progress in ill-health statistics in recent times. Despite efforts, the total number of ill-health cases has remained static at 1.8 million over the past two years, with the current ill-health rate standing at 5,250 per 100,000 workers – higher than pre-pandemic levels. What’s more, while injuries resulted in 3.7 million lost days in 2022/23, ill-health resulted in a staggering 31.5 million days lost, with stress, depression and anxiety responsible for almost half of that figure (17.1 million days). Certainly, the statistics emphasise the critical need to address ill health, especially mental health, with the same urgency as accident reduction.

Clamping down on employers?

The HSE’s decision to spotlight mental ill-health in its 10-year strategy signals a serious commitment to the cause and may mean the regulator begins to investigate – and potentially take enforcement action – in instances where the workplace environment contributes to increased psychosocial risk to employees. This becomes even more significant in cases involving severe outcomes, such as suicide, where workplace factors may be implicated.

In essence, 2024 marks a pivotal moment for employers to reevaluate their approach to employee wellbeing. Beyond complying with regulations, fostering a mentally healthy workplace is not just a legal obligation but a moral imperative. The HSE’s targeted efforts underscore the need for proactive measures, urging organisations to prioritise mental health alongside physical safety for a resilient and flourishing workforce.

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Legal duties and recommended control measures: A timely recap

Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work – but what is stress? The HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.

It’s important to understand that stress affects people differently – what is stressful to one person may not affect another. Factors such as skills and experience, age or disability may all impact a worker’s ability to cope.

The key to dealing with stress is tackling the problem early, as this may reduce the impact on the employee. With this in mind, there are several steps employers can take to better manage stress in the workplace and ready themselves for the HSE’s renewed focus on mental health:

1

Implement a policy

Implementing a comprehensive stress management policy – and ensuring its adoption and understanding among both managers and employees – is crucial. This framework equips the workforce with clear guidelines, fostering a collective commitment to identifying, addressing, and managing stress within the organisation.

2

Provide training

It’s vital that managers are able to identify signs of stress in the workplace as this will enable them to proactively intervene, reduce, and effectively manage these issues. Ensuring that all managers undergo training on recognising stress indicators and implementing straightforward, practical measures will equip them with the understanding and tools necessary to address stress at the earliest opportunity.

3

Collect data

Is your company currently collecting data on stress-related sick leave? HR can use this information to better understand what factors may be contributing to stress, particularly where multiple cases emerge. This data-driven approach allows for the early identification of stress patterns, facilitating timely interventions and the cultivation of a supportive workplace culture.

4

Empower managers with Talking Toolkits

The HSE’ Talking Toolkits are downloadable PDFs designed to help line managers have simple, practical conversations with employees about stress. As well as opening and guiding conversations, they can also help smaller organisations gather the sort of data that larger organisations may obtain through surveys.

These toolkits can be used as part of an existing one-to-one, built into training days, or a new meeting could be set up solely to talk about stress and how to prevent it. While they are not intended to be used in isolation as an employer’s only measure for preventing stress, they can assist in identifying issues early and developing action plans.

5

Conduct risk assessments

In instances where an employee has communicated their struggle with stress, it’s imperative for the employer to conduct a risk assessment and promptly implement relevant control measures to provide support. There are various ways stress can be managed, but the HSE Management Standards document outlines 6 key stressors and gives examples of how these stressors can be addressed.

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Need support?

From introducing stress policies and procedures to helping you understand and apply the HSE’s Management Standards, WorkNest’s Health & Safety and Employment Law specialists are here to help you take a proactive approach to stress within your organisation. We can also assist in completing risk assessments, managing any resulting absence in line with the law, and empowering your team to manage these matters more confidently through stress and mental health awareness training.

To find out how we can help you to overcome stress-related issues and meet your obligations, contact our team on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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