The number of new and longstanding cases of workplace stress, depression and anxiety has risen over 14 % accelerated by the pandemic.
On 23 November 2022, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released its annual summary statistics of workplace injuries and ill health covering the period April 2021 to March 2022.
The statistics reveal rising rates of workplace stress, anxiety and depression with a recognition by the HSE that the pandemic has been a contributory factor. In the press release which accompanies the report, the HSE Chief Executive, Sarah Albon, comments:
'Stress and poor mental health is the number one cause of work-related ill health...we need all employers to do more and take seriously their responsibilities to support good mental health at work.'
Summary of headlines
- 914,000 existing and new cases of workplace stress, depression and anxiety which has led to 17 million working days lost.
- 565, 000 workers suffered an injury in the workplace – a rise in comparison with the two previous years but similar to pre-pandemic levels.
- 477,000 cases of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD).
- 123,000 cases of COVID-19 (thought) to have been contracted in the workplace.
- 12,000 lung disease deaths linked to past occupational exposures which include over 2,500 mesothelioma deaths.
- A total of 36.8 million working days lost due to workplace ill health and injury with an estimated total cost to the economy of £18.8 billion.
- 123 workplace fatalities – though deaths linked to both COVID-19 and occupational lung disease are excluded.
Context and caveats
The statistics rely for the most part upon Labour Force Self-Report Studies which the HSE recognise may under or overestimate the true position.
The statistics this year do include the total of lost working days but once again, do not include any data in relation to workplace violence. In a previous article we address the large-scale survey conducted earlier this year by the British Retail Consortium.
Workplace mental health in more detail...
The number of new and longstanding cases of workplace stress, depression and anxiety has risen from just over 800,000 cases in 2020/2021 to 914,000 cases – a rise of over 14 %. The HSE recognise that the underlying rising trend has been accelerated and made worse by the pandemic.
The total includes 372,000 new cases with over 17 million working days lost and attributable to workplace stress, depression and anxiety – again higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Those sectors with the highest levels per capita are (perhaps unsurprisingly) public administration, health/social care and education - three sectors where, for the most part, their employees have been unable to work from home.
As we have highlighted in previous articles, the contributory factor of the pandemic will make separating out work-related causation difficult for many claimants.
Workplace COVID-19 contraction
The 123,000 self-reported cases for 2021/2022 compares to 93,000 cases for the previous year and again remains much higher than RIDDOR reports completed by employers.
Direct COVID-19 claims have been very low in statistical terms since the start of the pandemic. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) has not, as was anticipated. listed COVID-19 as a prescribed disease for certain occupation types. This is largely consequent to new, more contagious variants rendering 'true' workplace contraction even more difficult to establish. We expect intrinsic difficulties in establishing both breach and occupational causation will militate against direct COVID-19 claims appearing in high volumes.
Work related ill health
2021/2022 saw 1.8 million new or longstanding cases of work-related ill health – a rise from 1.6 million seen in 2020/2021.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) contribute 477,000 cases. As with workplace mental health, there is an acknowledgment by the HSE that the coronavirus pandemic has been a contributory factor in both new and existing cases.
Fatal and non-fatal workplace injuries
The HSE released separately in July statistics for fatal accidents covering the period April 2021 to March 2022. This showed a decline in fatalities – 123 deaths compared to 145 deaths in 2020/21 – again evidence of a longer-term decline.
The UK's rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers now stands at 0.38 compared to the highest level recorded in 1988 of 2.5.
Accurate statistics have been compiled only from 1981. Once again, the sectors with the highest fatality rates were agriculture/forestry/fishing, construction, manufacturing and transport – each having rates per 100,000 workers varying from 8.03 (agriculture/forestry/fishing) to 0.82 (manufacturing). Those aged 60 years and above had twice the average rate for fatalities measured against all age groups.
The number of non-fatal workplace injuries has risen markedly from 400,000 last year to 565,000 – a rise of 41 %.
It should be noted that this figure is still well below the pre-pandemic figure of 700,000 workplace injuries and is attributable to several factors which include the end of the coronavirus job retention scheme and the lifting of pandemic restrictions. The long-term trend remains downwards.
The statistics contain very little that is new in relation to longtail diseases. The number of lung disease deaths owing to past occupational exposure has remained static at 12,000.
Mesothelioma mortality is impacted by a time lag in reporting. Deaths reported in 2020 showed an increase compared to 2019 of 2,544 deaths, though the HSE predict that deaths will fall to an estimated 1,300 deaths per annum by the end of the decade. The age demographic illustrates those 75 years and above by some distances having the highest mortality rates.
Cost to the UK economy
Nearly 37 million working days have been lost consequent to workplace ill health and injury resulting in an estimated total cost to the economy of £18.8 billion. Almost half is attributable to workplace stress, depression and anxiety.
From an enforcement perspective, the vast majority of prosecutions are still focussed on the most serious incidents which lead to death or serious injury. The latest statistics show a decrease in fatal incidents but a significant rise in the number of incidents that are reportable under RIDDOR. This upward trend is surprising given that prior to the pandemic the non-fatal injury rates were gradually declining.
The HSE's latest enforcement data has not yet been released, but we are aware from the HSE's 10 year strategy Protecting People and Places that the plan is to continue to target organisations undertaking high risk activities with the worst risk management records.
In the HSE's Business Plan for 2022/23 it was announced that during the current financial year the HSE plan to carry out 14,000 proactive inspections. These inspections may lead to notifications of contravention being served and the payment of fees for intervention. In the case of more serious health and safety breaches being identified, the inspections could result in formal enforcement action through the serving of enforcement notices or criminal prosecution. The HSE are revisiting their resourcing strategy to ensure that they have sufficient inspectors to meet their inspection targets.
Despite the HSE's published intentions to take targeted action to seek to hold businesses to account where breaches of health and safety legislation are identified, the UK continues to be a safe place to work when compared to countries in Europe. Our fatal and non-fatal injury statistics are broadly comparable with countries such as Germany and are significantly better than our close neighbours in France.
The rising levels of workplace stress, depression and anxiety will understandably make the headlines. We do, however, urge caution before concluding that this will necessarily translate into more claims for personal injury. Separating out the workplace-specific as opposed to the pandemic's wider influence upon mental health alongside the need to establish foreseeability and breach of duty may be difficult for many claimants to achieve.
There is a need, however, for employers, from an HR perspective, to offer a package of support to their employees for mental health, particularly as a hybrid work pattern becomes more entrenched.
More generally, we feel the focus for personal injury claims over the next 12 to 24 months is likely to be in the health, social care and education sectors.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.