A report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in December 2021 has found that stress, anxiety and depression caused more than half of all work-related sickness absence in the year 2020/21.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, the report shows that the rate of self-reported work-related ill health was broadly flat. However, the rate of self-reported stress, anxiety and depression was already showing signs of increasing. Pre-pandemic, the main causes were workload, lack of support, violence, threats, bullying and changes at work.

In 2020/21, the report shows that there were 850,000 new cases of work-related ill health, of which 451,000 were reported to be related to stress, depression or anxiety.

In addition to this, 645,000 workers reported suffering from a work-related illness caused or made worse by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of this number, 70% were related to stress, depression or anxiety, with women aged between 25 and 34 being most likely to report this reason for absence.

The findings of the report have been attributed to the unprecedented pressure placed on workers’ mental health since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, what steps can employers take to address work-related stress, anxiety and depression and protect the mental health of their workforces?

How can employers help?

Employers must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace, which includes mental health. There are several ways that employers can do this:

  • Have open conversations: Talk openly about mental health as problems are less likely to build up if staff feel that they can discuss them openly.
  • Create a supportive environment: Ensure the workplace is a supportive environment where mental and physical health are treated with equal importance. Ensure that employees have regular one-to-ones with managers where any problems can be discussed.
  • Increase mental health awareness: Raise awareness of the importance of mental health by arranging mental health awareness training or appointing mental health “champions” or “first aiders” whom staff can contact about any issues they are experiencing.
  • Encourage positive mental health: Encourage wellbeing in the workplace by creating opportunities for staff to connect with others, stay active and relax such as setting up a lunchtime mindfulness class or a workplace running club.
  • Tackle the causes of workplace stress: Encourage employees to adopt a healthy work-life balance, create clear boundaries between work and home, and to ask for help if they are struggling with their workload.

Creating an open, supportive workplace which promotes and demonstrates positive mental health is an important step in addressing the increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression among workers with a view to reducing sickness absence, having lower staff turnover and improving morale in the workforce.