For Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK this year, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has highlighted stress as a growing epidemic requiring attention. Stress is a common health issue that affects most of us at some time in our lives, but if it becomes chronic or isn’t acknowledged and treated, it can become a serious health and safety issue.
Though not a mental illness, stress can lead to psychological problems such as anxiety or depression, and numerous physiological issues, like stomach ulcers, musculoskeletal problems and heart disease. In 2016/17, 12.5 million working days were lost to stress, depression or anxiety (Health and Safety Executive), but this is only known if people admit to their problems. Many absence reports are based on excuses masking stress, with others being due to physical manifestations such as migraines.
And still, because of stigma and thinking they won’t be taken seriously, or a high workload and fear of losing their job, there are those coming to work when they are overwhelmed and unable to cope, but too afraid to say. This ‘presenteeism’ then creates risks where symptoms of stress, such as inattention, anger and fatigue, or the effects of the coping mechanisms used to deal with it, such as taking alcohol and drugs, create potentially hazardous working conditions.
We know that accidents are due to human error and part of that can be attributed to stress. Whatever the cause or source of stress, it must be seen as having an impact on safety. A stressed worker has the potential to be an unsafe worker and industry cannot afford to ignore this. A priority of any manager is to look after the overall health and safety of their employees. There is a responsibility on the employer to examine the potential sources of stress and minimise any risks in the workplace that could harm employee health, including stressors such as bad work-design, high workload and lack of control.
Employers also have a duty of care to employees, which includes spotting the signs of stress, encouraging that person to talk about their issues and offering appropriate support. People need to talk, especially men. The fact that three-quarters of all suicides in 2016 were male is testament to that (Office for National Statistics). Stress cannot be underestimated in its role in this; over a third of people have experienced suicidal feelings because of it (MHF, ‘Stress: Are We Coping?’, 2018).
So, shouldn’t this hidden danger to both personal health and collective safety be dealt with out in the open? Barriers and defences are implemented for assessed, tangible risks. Methods of assessing the risks posed by stress, and preventative measures to reduce stress in the workplace, should also be adopted for this less tangible but equally hazardous risk factor. The MHF calls on the government and Health and Safety Executive to ‘ensure that employers treat physical and psychological hazards in the workplace equally and help employers recognise and address psychological hazards in the workplace under existing legislation’.
Tackling stress at work head on should be a major priority if workers are to be prevented from harm. We are pleased to see that Mental Health and Wellbeing is the focus of the Occupational Health and Wellbeing Theatre at the Safety and Health Expo this year in London, where Kelvin TOP-SET will be exhibiting and speaking. After all, the safety and wellbeing of workers is our ultimate aim too.
To read the full report from the MHF, click here.