Health and safety – putting mental health into focus

26 Feb 2019

Of the 26.8 million working days lost due to work-related ill health in 2017/18, more than half (fifty seven percent -15.4 million) were due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to a report issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in November 2018. Sectors which attract higher incidents include education, human health and social work, public administration and defence. Employers and society cannot ignore these statistics as they are impacting on the well-being of our people and our organisations.

Often employers focus on the physical wellbeing of employees, but the umbrella legislation of the Health and safety at Work Act 1974 explicitly requires employers to also ensure the 'welfare' of their employees, so far as reasonably practicable, when at work. In Northern Ireland, all managers have legal responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to ensure the mental welfare of their employees. This includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees.

One sad statistic revealed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is that more than 1400 construction workers committed suicide between 2011 and 2015, the highest number of any profession over that period. Of the 13,232 in-work suicides recorded by the ONS, skilled construction and building trade workers accounted for thirteen percent, despite construction only accounting for little over seven percent of the entire UK workforce. Whilst the causes of suicide are often complex and highly sensitive, the impact of this statistic on the sector is significant and construction businesses are being encouraged to talk to workers about mental health and provide support where they can, recognising that work plays a significant part in all our lives and monitoring those who may be vulnerable can have very positive outcomes.

The risks posed by work related stress are well publicised and employers must recognise these risks and ensure that they have support networks and risk strategies in place for helping employees who may be suffering. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work and can achieve a level of care by conducting a risk assessment and ensuring that further actions are taken if necessary. The HSE’s own Management Standards can help organisations comply with the law and tackle work-related stress.

Business leaders should actively consider how they:

  • monitor factors that might suggest there is a problem with stress-related illness in the business, for example, high rates of absenteeism, staff turnover, poor performance, conflict between staff
  • ensure there is a health and safety policy that addresses the issue of stress in the workplace, including, if appropriate, a stress management strategy
  • ensure effective risk assessments have been carried out, are monitored regularly and any recommendations are being implemented and adequately funded
  • plan for stress-related risks when embarking on significant organisational change.

It is important that individuals across the organisation see that their directors or CEO believe in the issue of mental health, as without their commitment, it is unlikely that measures to tackle this problem will be effective.

It is difficult to find any prosecutions by the HSE for specifically failing to manage stress and mental health in the workplace. Often the recourse for employees is through the employment tribunals or civil personal injury claims.

That being said, the impact of stress on safety management must not be underestimated. An employee who is unwell and suffering in the workplace, be that a psychical or mental condition, is potentially a greater risk to themselves and others, which over time may become significant and debilitating. Is an HGV or FLT driver who is stressed and anxious a safe person to be on the road or driving in a busy warehouse? Is a tired and depressed machine operative a safe person to be working with heavy machinery and cutting tools? The questions may be rhetorical, but the impact of this ill health can pervade across a business and create risks many employers had not even anticipated.

Engaging and talking to employees about mental health can help normalise what can still be seen in some sectors as a “taboo”, but the barriers are breaking down. The high profile endorsement by the young Royals, coupled with many large businesses dedicated to creating an environment for employees where mental health is talked about, means that society and employees are given increased opportunities to seek help and support. This in turn creates a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.

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Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to clients of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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Helen Devery

Helen Devery


Cormac Fitzpatrick

Cormac Fitzpatrick

Belfast & Derry

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