LRD Booklets October 2016

Stress and mental health at work - a guide for trade union reps

[page 3-5]


Stress is the number one health and safety concern for trade union members and their reps across all sizes of workplace and in every region and country in the UK. The 2016 biennial TUC safety representatives’ survey found that stress stands out more than ever as the chief health and safety concern and was identified as a top-five hazard by 70% of safety representatives in the survey.

Concern over stress and the mental health problems it can trigger remains higher in the public sector than the private sector, but has become more widespread everywhere. The reasons are not hard to find. Low pay is endemic, job insecurity is increasing as more and more people find themselves in precarious forms of work – whether temporary agency work, false self-employment or zero-hours contracts. And huge job cuts have left many of those who still have a job struggling to cope with unmanageable workloads and uncertainty – dubbed “redundancy survivor syndrome”.

The problem is particularly prevalent, and rising, in central government, with a massive 93% of safety reps citing it as a top-five concern. One delegate at the 2016 PCS civil service union’s annual conference firmly pinned the blame for rising levels of stress on “vicious, ideological attacks, the cuts, closures and threats of privatisation”. The repercussions of the austerity agenda have also meant that stress is endemic in other parts of the public services with nearly 90% of reps in education and 82% of reps in the health sector citing it as a top five concern. Further findings published by retail union Usdaw show that since the economic crash of 2008 there has been a four-fold increase in the number of people reporting symptoms of stress and the mental health problems it can cause. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030, depression will become the biggest global cause of illness.

The “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union (EU) is compounding an already difficult situation. There has been a large rise in reported levels of hate crime and threats and abuse against migrant workers and people from black, minority and ethnic (BME) groups post-Brexit. The professional workers’ union Prospect has warned that this is making EU nationals working in the UK, feel more insecure and vulnerable about their place in our society.

The recent report Under pressure, underfunded and undervalued by public service union UNISON reveals what life is like for local government workers who since 2010 have had to deal with unprecedented cuts to funding, job cuts, pay and terms and conditions being ripped apart and no investment in the workforce. The survey found that almost three quarters (73%) of respondents reported rising stress levels. And the 2015 NHS staff survey published in February 2016, an annual staff survey based on responses from some 300,000 people (around a quarter of the workforce), found that a third of respondents felt they had experienced work-related stress.

According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, stress is responsible for around a third of all new instances of work-related ill health, leading to around 10 million lost working days each year. It reports that the main factors people cite as causes of work-related stress, depression and anxiety are workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility, and a lack of managerial support.

Mental health has also risen up union agendas, with increasing recognition that in order to tackle stress, they must challenge the stigma of talking about mental health issues.

Unions in male-dominated services and industries are among those encouraging their members to speak up. For example, the FBU fire workers’ union recently published new guidance on mental health in the workplace for its reps after the mental health charity Mind found that almost a third (30%) of firefighters have contemplated taking their own lives.

Key to union campaigning on stress is to ensure that collective solutions are found. Despite the wealth of evidence showing that work is such a major cause of stress, some employers continue to attribute stress to individual problems caused by factors outside work and normal day-to-day pressures, such as domestic and family problems, difficulties with transport, health, or even noisy neighbours.

The ATL teachers’ union advises its members: “The important thing to remember is that stress is an organisational problem, not an individual weakness. If you are suffering from work-related stress, your employer has a legal duty to tackle it. There is no stigma attached to asking for help.”

And the TUC particularly has warned against a “resilience” approach, one in which employers try to make workers more able to withstand stress rather than attacking the root of the problem and reducing stress levels. This is why a trade union approach, emphasising collective action, is necessary to successfully tackle stress and mental health at work, and the role of trade union reps is central to this process.

Trade union safety reps have a key role to play in ensuring that employers take their responsibilities for tackling work-related stress seriously. Dealing with stress shows that health and safety is not divorced from the rest of a union’s industrial activity and can help to improve other aspects of industrial relations and the working environment.

This booklet aims to provide reps with information, advice and guidance, written from a trade union perspective. It gives practical examples of how unions and reps have tackled work-related stress across a range of industrial and service sectors and in a variety of workplaces. The booklet:

• provides information on the scale of the problem, the causes of stress at work and its consequences, both in financial terms and in terms of ill-health, for organisations and workers; 

• looks at the extent of mental health problems in society and the workplace, and at union action in response;

• outlines the law in relation to work-related stress, examining the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, relevant health and safety regulations and the Equality Act 2010, as well as landmark legal decisions and recent case law;

• examines guidance from the TUC and trade unions as well as organisations including the HSE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA); and

• most importantly, sets out union action to tackle work-related stress from national to workplace level.