Workers are under ever increasing pressures at work, often striving to deliver more with fewer resources. The resulting stress affects not only individuals, families and colleagues by impacting their health, but also impacts employers, with costs relating to absence, replacing staff, lost production and increased accidents. Employers may also face legal issues if they fail to take the mental welfare of employees seriously.
Work-related stress, depression or anxiety has become the most commonly reported cause of occupational ill health in Great Britain, according to data published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in October 2019, accounting for 44 per cent of work-related ill health cases and more than half (54 per cent) of days lost to ill health.
Around 2.4 million work in the construction sector, representing 6.6 per cent of the UK workforce, and the sector saw 82,000 cases of ill-health reported in 2018. Of those, a quarter related to mental ill-health including stress, anxiety and depression.
Official figures put the rate of mental ill-health in construction at six per 1,000 workers, about half the national average of 13 cases in every 1,000 workers. However, the industry suffers from a suicide rate 1.6 times higher than average, suggesting that mental ill-health may be under reported by employees, due to a perceived stigma attached to the issue. Many of those working in construction are older males, who may not feel able to open up about their mental health.
Employers have a duty to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and are required to take reasonably practicable measures to control such risks under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Whatever the initial cause of mental ill-health, employers have a duty of care to ensure the mental health of their employees, especially once an issue is known. Steps must be taken to prevent the exacerbation or relapse of mental ill-health as a result of work. Suitable steps could include a phased return to work, one-to-one support and counselling, or referral to an occupational health provider.
As with any other workplace hazard, if employers fail to adequately protect their employees from work-related stress, the HSE could investigate and take enforcement action.
Work-related stress is one of the HSE's key strategic health priorities and, in the future, we expect to see prosecutions brought against organisations that fail to properly control the risk of stress-related ill health. This could result in significant fines imposed on offenders.
Within the construction sector, the duties to manage the risk of mental ill-health could extend not just to an employee's direct employer but also to other responsible parties under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, such as the principal contractor, as part of the duty to plan, manage, monitor and co-ordinate health and safety in the construction phase of a project.
Stress claims are limited, at present, by the decision in Hatton v Sutherland , which established that the risk of harm from stress must be reasonably foreseeable. This relatively strict test is likely to come under more and more fire in the future, as mental wellbeing receives more focus.
Article first published in Construction News.
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