12 million working days lost to work-related mental health conditions last year

Experts warn businesses must tackle causes of stress, anxiety and depression or risk workers ‘burning out left, right and centre’

A total of 12.8 million working days were lost because of work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2018-19, amounting to an average of 21.2 days lost per case, official data has shown.

Data from the Labour Force Survey, analysed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – the UK’s health and safety watchdog – showed that incidences of work-related stress, depression and anxiety have increased steadily since 2014-15, reaching a rate of 1,800 cases per 100,000 workers in the most recent figures.

Mental health was the most common type of work-related ill-health, accounting for 44 per cent of all work-related illness, and women saw more incidences of such conditions; over the years 2016-17 to 2018-19, there were an average of 2,020 cases per 100,000 female workers, compared with 1,490 cases per 100,000 male workers.

Cases were most prevalent among women aged 35-44, at 2,410 per 100,000 workers. 

Health and safety experts have urged the next government to take steps to reverse this trend, calling for a radical improvement to the country’s occupational health system, and for public policy to address workplace health. 

Richard Jones, head of policy and regulatory engagement at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said the need for better workplace health management in the UK was “fast-reaching a crescendo”.

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“As the UK heads for a new government, it’s vital that public policy focus on health at work is properly prioritised. We need to tackle the record numbers of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, [which last year reached] 602,000 cases,” he said. 

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, noted that while the figures were worrying, the increased incidences of such conditions could reflect a more open culture around mental health in the workplace. “It’s concerning that an increasing number of staff are needing to take time off sick because of problems like stress, anxiety and depression. It’s not clear whether these issues are on the rise or, more positively, whether it’s now more acceptable for staff to be open when they need time off work for these kinds of problems,” she said. 

Mamo encouraged employers to take staff wellbeing seriously, but added that the government should increase statutory sick pay and improve access rights and protections for disabled people at work to improve conditions for struggling workers. 

Workload was cited as the most common cause of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to HSE, although the most recent figures available were from 2009-10 to 2011-12. 

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said more recent research showed similar results. “Our findings also show that unmanageable workloads and 'management style' are the top two causes of stress-related absence,” she said, adding that “organisations need to understand what is driving ill-health and unhealthy working practices, like presenteeism, to improve employee wellbeing. 

“Much more investment in good people management is needed for managers to meet the increasing expectation on them to support people's health at work.” 

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, also cited high workloads, unnecessary pressure and a lack of support as the main causes of work-related mental ill-health. “If people are burning out left, right and centre, it is not sustainable for your business and inevitably ends up costing more,” she said. 

“Employers need to tackle the systemic causes of stress by designing good working practices that enhance mental health, such as monitoring workload and having clear organisational priorities.”