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Gauging the true scale of work-related stress

Gauging the true scale of work-related stress

An eraser rubs out the word stress on a blackboard

Rates of work-related stress and depression are at record highs, according to official figures. One person a minute develops stress because of excessive workloads, poorly designed jobs and a lack of support from their managers. While that figure seems high, the stigma that still dogs mental health could be preventing the real scale of the problem coming to light.

April is Stress Awareness Month. Naturally, we should highlight the prevalence of stress in our workplaces and the impact it can have on our health every month, but, considering the scale of the problem, the need is particularly acute this April.

We’ll be posting further blogs this month, looking at what Prospect branches are doing to tackle stress in their workplaces, but in this one we’ll be scrutinising the numbers.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. Stress can affect anyone, but the things that cause people stress can vary.

Often, it can be brought on by factors outside of work. In the workplace, there are well-recognised causes, including poorly managed organisational change, poor work-life balance, job insecurity and excessive work intensity, to name but a few.

All too often, people with stress, and society generally, blame it on some inner weakness. But with all of the causes listed above, it is possible for an employer to take action. Managing the risk of stress is a legal obligation, a fact that is often overlooked.

A recent article in the Guardian about burnout – a “sinister and insidious epidemic”, according to the paper – summed it up nicely: stress and burnout are “symptoms of an ailing organisation, rather than a sick individual”.

There are rich pickings when it comes to figures on the scale of work-related stress. The go-to source is usually the HSE.

According to its figures, drawn from the Labour Force Survey, 526,000 people ­– or one every minute – said they were suffering from stress, depression or anxiety that was caused or made worse by their work in 2016-17.

That’s 1,610 cases for every 100,000 workers. This makes it the most common work-related health problem. It’s the highest rate of stress since the HSE started regularly including questions about work-related health in the survey in 2003.

What is causing all of these people stress? In more than 40% of cases, it was – you guessed it – excessive workloads. This was followed by a lack of support from management (sound familiar?) and violence, threats and bullying.

But there are problems with the HSE’s Labour Force Survey. It requires people to self-diagnose stress, depression and anxiety and attribute it to their work. That’s no mean feat.

It’s also a household survey, meaning that in some cases an individual will respond on behalf of other people who they live with. They may not know about the mental well-being of their housemates. Finally, the survey is an interview and, given mental health stigma, people may be understandably reluctant to disclose a condition to a stranger.

The NHS released an authoritative study (authoritative because researchers diagnosed conditions, and didn’t rely on individuals having to disclose one) of mental ill-health prevalence in 2016. It found that at any one time, one in six employees – abound 15% – have a common mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety.

The HSE survey figures, on the other hand, indicate that one in 63 people, or 1.6%, developed work-related stress, depression or anxiety last year – almost 90% lower than in the NHS study, which was simply a snapshot in time.

The NHS figures do not identify why people developed mental health conditions, and do not cover stress. But if both the HSE and the NHS figures are correct, it would mean that the overwhelming majority of cases of depression and anxiety have nothing to do with work. We spend a lot of our time at work, so to suggest that it has minimal impact on our mental health seems questionable. If that’s the case, one – or both – must be wrong.

The EU carries out its own version of the Labour Force Survey, which uses the same methodology. The last time it asked people about their work-related health, in 2013, 42% of people in the UK said they were suffering from stress, depression or anxiety caused or made worse by their job.

Different sources get different results. Last year, insurance group AXA found that 82% of people feel stressed at least some of the time during a typical week, while almost one in 10 people feel stressed all the time. One of the main reasons for this was work, which 38% blamed for their stress.

A survey by the CIPD, the HR practitioners’ body, carried out late last year found that 38% of people are under excessive pressure at work at least once a week. And the TUC’s last biennial survey of safety reps revealed that stress was one of the top five hazards for 70% of respondents.

Correctly gauging the scale of work-related stress isn’t simply an academic exercise. National statistics provide policymakers and employers with information to help them make essential decisions that affect people’s health and well-being – which should be a priority all year round, not just during April.

Megan Wikeley

Megan Wikeley


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