Highly regarded primary school teacher Keith Waller felt “singled out” by report from schools standards body Ofsted. Severely stressed, he couldn’t sleep and became depressed.
Keith, 35, tried to put things right, resigning from the senior management team at St Lawrence Church of England Primary School in Essex and starting an unsuccessful search for a new job. A November 2007 inquest heard he was found hanged in his home on 2 May that year. A letter to his union, NASUWT, said he had been “treated unfairly and victimised”, adding: “What started as an issue about marking somehow became manipulated to become issues concerning every single aspect of my performance.”
Within weeks a December 2007 inquest had heard how Peterborough headteacher Jed Holmes killed himself prompted by fears over an Ofsted inspection of his primary school the following day. Birmingham teacher James Patton, 29, hanged himself because he was fearful of an Ofsted inspection. Pamela Relf killed herself after criticism in an Ofsted report (Hazards 83).
This isn’t an education phenomenon. Successive TUC safety reps’ surveys identify stress and overwork as the top – and growing – workplace health and safety concern. And a Hazards online dossier details a sequence of recent work-related suicides in education, factory, health service and fast food workers (see dossier). In 2007, work-related suicide scandals hit car makers Renault and Peugeot in France and telecommunications giant Telstra in Australia.
In the UK, there are about 5,000 suicides every year in people of working age. Japan – where work-related suicide or “karojisatsu” in an officially recognised and compensated occupational condition - estimates five per cent of all suicides are “company related”, equating to over 250 deaths a year in the UK – more than HSE’s total for occupational fatalities. A 2002 Australian analysis of suicide causes over the decade to 2000 would also suggest a UK work-related toll in excess of 100 deaths per year (Hazards 83).
Figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in November 2007, showed a sharp upturn in cases of work-related “stress, depression or anxiety,” with the total affected up to 530,000 in 2006/07 from 420,000 the previous year. (1)
The number of new cases reported in HSE’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) analysis was up by 1,000 cases a week, to 242,000. It trails only musculoskeletal disorders in number of cases and related sick days.
‘Stressed out’, a December 2007 reportfrom the Samaritans (2), found work stress “looks to be a trend that is increasing”, with its research finding “over half the public feel their job is only going to get more stressful.” And ‘Mental health at work: Developing the business case’, a policy paper published in December by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (SCMH) concluded mental ill-health costs UK employers more than £25bn a year, or £1,000 per employee in the workforce. (3) It added on any given day, one worker in five will experience mental distress, with mental health problems accounting for 40 per cent of sickness absence from work.
A 2005 editorial in the British Medical Journal noted that stress-related mental health problems had for the first time topped physical ailments as the chief cause of long-term sickness benefits claims in Britain. (4)
The Samaritans found almost four in every 10 workers “feel work rules their life.” Its survey found in 2007 49 per cent of people were “worried about the affect stress is having on their health”, compared to 44 per cent the preceding year. “Job-related stress has a serious and unrecognised impact on the health of the nation and the economy, affecting concentration and efficiency,” said Samaritans spokesperson Joe Ferns. Over half the workforce (55 per cent) had seen someone reduced to tears by stress at work.
Factors including work-related depression, violence, job insecurity, stress, burnout, lack of job satisfaction, mind-altering chemical and pesticide exposures and the aftermath of work-related injuries and diseases have all be implicated in work-related depression and suicides.
Bad feeling about work
A 2005 UK study of 250,000 employees found people with low job satisfaction were most likely to experience emotional burnout, have reduced self-esteem and suffer from anxiety and depression. Even a modest drop in job satisfaction could lead to burnout of “considerable clinical importance”, the report said, adding: “The relationships are particularly impressive for aspects of mental health, specifically burnout, lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, where it can now be confirmed that dissatisfaction at work can be hazardous to an employee’s mental health and wellbeing.” (5)
work lives: The Hazards suicide
A 2007 study (6) of almost 1,000 32-year-olds found 45 per cent of new cases of depression and anxiety were attributable to stressful work. The researchers defined a highly demanding job as involving a lack of control, long hours, non-negotiable deadlines and a high volume of work (Hazards 100).
Overall 10 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women in the study suffered a first episode of depression or anxiety over the year-long study. But the risk was double in those with the highest pressure jobs, according to the paper published in the August 2007 issue of Psychological Medicine.
A 2007 paper for Australia’s National Research Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Regulation concluded workplace restructuring and job losses have a serious effect on the health and well-being of workers. (7)
Professor Michael Quinlan, the paper’s author, said international evidence has linked downsizing and organisational restructuring to poorer mental health outcomes, bullying, and other forms of occupational violence.
He concluded that regulators, employers and unions had failed to respond adequately to “substantial if not compelling evidence that downsizing and organisational restructuring pose a serious risk to the physical and mental health and wellbeing of workers.”
Professor Quinlan made a number of recommendations. He said safety laws should “explicitly enunciate employer responsibilities regarding contingent work arrangements and major workplace restructuring such as downsizing and to keep a record of their compliance with these provisions.
"Government safety agencies should also develop guidance, with enforcement action taken where companies fail to comply with good practice, obviating the need to demonstrate a link between the restructuring decision and an illness or injury to a worker or workers.”
One key ingredient in determining who kills themselves is “access to means”. Doctors have the drugs cabinet, farmers have guns and pesticides. And depressed workers have medication.
A 2007 study (8) found workers who keep their jobs following a round of redundancies are almost as likely to end up on stress medication as their colleagues who are made redundant (Hazards 97). University College London researchers, writing in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, said more help should be offered to “survivors”. They found found men who lost or left their jobs were most at risk of a prescription for a psychotropic drug, including anti-depressants. They were 64 per cent more likely to be given such a prescription than those working in organisations where no job losses had occurred.
But men who kept their jobs in downsized organisations were almost 50 per cent more likely to be given a prescription for one of these drugs than were those whose organisations were not downsized. Women working in downsized organisations were 12 per cent more likely to be given a prescription. Sleeping pills were most often prescribed to men while anti-anxiety drugs were most often prescribed to women, the findings showed.
Employees subjected to real or threatened violence at work run a major risk of becoming clinically depressed or suffering other stress related disorders. A 2006 Danish study (9) found exposure to violence boosted the risk of depression by 45 per cent in women and 48 per cent in men (Hazards 96). Stress related disorders were around a third more likely in women and 55 per cent more likely in men. The magnitude of risk was directly proportional to the amount of violence experienced at work.
Even where work isn’t to blame, it might not be helping matters – employers don’t do enough, and most of us, approaching 30 million, spend a significant part of our waking hours at work.
In November 2007, the government announced its new ‘National Strategy for Mental Health and Work’, (10) to be accompanied in October 2008 by new incapacity tests designed to get more people off benefits and into work. The government said it will treble the number of employment advisers in GP surgeries and pilot a new £8m advice and support service for smaller businesses as part of a new approach it says will help people with stress and other mental health conditions find and keep work.
The strategy was criticised by mental health charity Mind. Policy director Sophie Corlett said there was a danger that those forced to return to work prematurely would see their health deteriorate, meaning that “their chances of working actually diminishes”. She added: “Unfortunately, many employers are still not very understanding about mental health problems. We fear that thousands of people with mental health problems will be under pressure to take up inappropriate work and risk becoming ill again. They will find themselves caught in a devastating cycle where they are turfed out of their new job and back onto benefits. This won’t be good for the individual's health or for the economy.”
Criticism has been levelled at business too, some from within the business community. An October 2007 report from Business in the Community(11) concluded “apathy” on workplace health is damaging both workers’ health and productivity. Its research found nearly half of employees (44 per cent) said they were discouraged from taking sick days when unwell. Over half (55 per cent) said they were suffering stress and over a third depression (38 per cent).
Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (SCMH) employment programme director Bob Grove, commenting after the publication of its report, said “most employers vastly under-estimate how many of their staff will have mental health problems. Employers who take effective action to improve the well-being of their staff will reap the rewards for their efforts.”
The 2005 British Medical Journal editorial that revealed mental health problems had eclipsed physical ailments as the top cause of long-term sick leave, noted a massive shortage of occupational physicians in the UK was exacerbating the problem.
Employers meanwhile believe the health service needs to improve its act. A November 2007 report (12) from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), based on its CIPD/KPMG quarterly Labour Market Outlook report, warned that GPs are typically rated negatively by employers for the level of support they provide in helping people with mental health problems return to work. Ben Willmott, CIPD employee relations adviser, said: “GPs are letting down patients signed off work with mental health problems by not communicating effectively with employers. All the evidence shows that a phased return to work can play a hugely beneficial role in the recovery of people suffering with this kind of illness.
“Employers are willing to do their bit, but they need support and better communication from GPs to facilitate appropriately phased returns to work.”
2 Stressed out: A study of public experience of stress at work, Samaritans, December 2007 [pdf]
4 Max Henderson, Nicholas Glozier, Kevin Holland Elliott. Editorial: Long term sickness absence, BMJ, volume 330, pages 802-803, 9 April 2005.
5 EB Faragher, M Cass and CL Cooper. The relationship between job satisfaction and health: a meta-analysis, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 62, number 2, pages 105-112, February 2005 [abstract]
6 Maria Melchior and others. Work stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young, working women and men, Psychological Medicine, volume 37, issue 8, pages 1119-1129, 2007.
7 Michael Quinlan. Organisational restructuring/downsizing, OHS regulation and worker health and wellbeing, National Research Centre for OHS Regulation, Working Paper 52, 2007. http://.ohs.anu.edu.au
8 Mika Kivimäki and others. Organisational downsizing and increased use of psychotropic drugs among employees who remain in employment, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, volume 61, pages 154-8, 2007.
9 Joanna Wieclaw and others. Work related violence and threats and the risk of depression and stress disorders, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, volume 60, pages 771-5, September 2006.
10 New support for employers and GPS to tackle stress-related sicknotes – Hain, DWP news release, 27 November 2007.
11 Business leaders warned as apathy towards worker wellbeing takes it toll on productivity, BITC news release, 10 October 2007. [pdf]
criticise GPs for inadequate support when managing people off work with
mental health problems, CIPD news release, 12 November 2007.
THE HAZARDS WORK SUICIDE DOSSIER
A head teacher killed himself, with the action “triggered” by fears over an Ofsted inspection of his primary school the following day, a coroner has ruled. Jed Holmes was off work with stress when he was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning at his flat, with remnants of a barbecue fire in a room.
He died on the eve of an Ofsted inspection in July 2007 at Hampton Hargate Primary School, Peterborough. The coroner said the evidence showed he was concerned about the inspection. “We can't exclude the proximity of the Ofsted inspection at the date of his death,” said Gordon Ryall, Peterborough coroner. “It was that impending inspection that triggered off the action he decided to take.”
Mr Holmes had been head teacher of the school for seven years. He suffered with his health because of the stress of work and had been on medication for several months to treat depression, the inquest in Peterborough heard.
Keith Waller, teacher, 35
Further evidence of the deadly stresses facing education staff has emerged after another teacher suicide. Keith Waller, 35, an experienced primary school teacher who was highly regarded by colleagues, pupils and parents took his own life, an inquest heard.
He felt “singled out” and placed under excessive scrutiny after the school received a poor Ofsted report in 2006. In a bid to reduce the pressure, Mr Waller resigned from the senior management team at St Lawrence Church of England Primary School in Rowledge, near Colchester, and started looking for a new job. But he failed to turn up to work after an unsuccessful interview on 30 April and was found by police hanged in his home on 2 May 2007.
A will was near his body. A letter he wrote to teaching union NASUWT - which was handed to the coroner but not read in the inquest - complained his competence was being questioned and said he was suffering from depression and losing sleep. “I feel I have been unfairly treated and victimised by my headteacher,” he added. “What started as an issue about marking somehow became manipulated to become issues concerning every single aspect of my performance.”
Suffolk coroner Dr Peter Dean recorded a verdict of suicide. He told Mr Waller's family: “We have heard of Keith's own perceptions he felt victimised and bullied. It is not for this court to make any judgments on that.”
Morag Wilson, 32, a manager at Manchester’s Wythenshawe hospital, stabbed herself with a kitchen knife before jumping 100ft from the M60 into the Manchester ship canal. A June 2007 inquest heard that Ms Wilson, head of dietetics at the hospital, had been facing huge pressure at work because of government reforms under the Agenda for Change review.
The south Manchester coroner, John Pollard, urged the NHS to consider the impact of reforms on staff as he recorded a verdict of suicide following her death in December 2006. “I find it extremely sad that a young woman with such a lot going for her, very dedicated to her work, has been reduced to despair by the pressure upon her at work,” he said.
“When people introduce these rules and systems, perhaps a bit more thought as to what effect they will have on people would be helpful.”
Wayne Williams, engineer, 28
An engineer who killed himself wrote in a suicide note saying 'the pressure of work has turned my mind into a ticking time bomb,' an inquest has heard. Cardiff Coroner's Court heard how 28-year-old Wayne Williams hanged himself after a party to mark the end of a year-long contract in Singapore.
Coroner Mary Hassell recorded a verdict of suicide on the death of Mr Williams from Llantwit Major in south Wales. The court heard that two notes were found. One note, addressed to his work colleagues, read: “Unfortunately the game has got the better of me - give my apologies to all the lads.” The other to his parents read: “I have been depressed for a while now - the pressure of work has turned my mind into a ticking time bomb.”
The coroner said “it is hard to understand why someone described as happy-go-lucky should choose to end their own life over pressure in work.”
Thomas Corr, car factory worker, 38
The firm that employed a man who killed himself years after suffering an injury at work is liable for his death, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
Thomas Corr, then aged 31, had almost all his right ear severed at the Luton IBC van factory while fixing a machine. Six years later, in May 2002, he took his own life after suffering headaches, tinnitus and severe depression. The High Court originally ruled IBC Vehicles were not responsible for his death but that ruling has now been overturned.
Mr Corr's widow, Eileen, had gone to the High Court in April 2005 to sue for £750,000 because of the pain and suffering caused after the industrial accident. IBC Vehicles, which produces vans for Vauxhall Motors in Luton, admitted liability for the workplace accident but denied that its responsibility extended to him taking his own life six years later. This was accepted in the High Court when Deputy Judge Nigel Baker QC ruled against Mrs Corr, awarding her just £82,520 after finding IBC could not be held responsible for her husband's suicide.
This High Court decision was overturned on a majority ruling at the Appeal Court. Lord Justice Sedley said all the evidence suggested there was no other cause of Mr Corr's suicide other than the injury he suffered at work, and he was previously a “rational man”. He said: “The suicide was proved to have been a function of the depression and so formed part of the damage for which IBC were liable.” He added that to treat Mr Corr as responsible for his own death was an “unjustified exception” to modern views on the links between accidents and their causes.
Hazards magazine reported in 2003 that the work-related suicide toll in the UK was likely to exceed 100 deaths per year, caused by factors including overwork, stress and harassment. None of these deaths will be included in workplace death figures (Hazards 83).
Paula Tomlinson, police officer, 35
Workplace stress was a contributory factor in the suicide of a Merseyside police officer, a coroner has ruled. Pc Paula Tomlinson, 35, who was a member of a police firearms squad, was found hanged at her home in January 2004. She had recently been dismissed from the firearms department for failing several proficiency tests.
Sefton coroner Christopher Sumner heard she felt victimised and uncomfortable in the gun squad's “macho environment”. Ms Tomlinson was one of just two women in the 90-strong unit and one of the first female snipers in the country. The coroner was told she felt she had got on the wrong side of an influential clique of officers after complaining that some of her colleagues had watched a pornographic video during a residential course.
Mr Sumner said he had concluded “that Paula Tomlinson killed herself at a time that she was suffering from stress, a contributory factor of which was work related.” Following the inquest, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said it had found insufficient evidence to support any misconduct hearings in relation to allegations of bullying and intimidation within Merseyside Police's firearms unit. It said it had however found evidence of inequitable treatment, a failure by managers to address Pc Tomlinson's situation and an 'in crowd' culture within the firearms department.
David Baines, school worker, 57
A school worker was found dead in a fume-filled car the day after being suspended from work, an inquest has heard. Support worker David Baines, 57, worked at St Christopher's School, Wrexham, with children with special needs. His wife told the hearing he did not know why he had been suspended and was worried he was being accused of abuse. He left a note saying, “Sorry it's got to be this way. I can't face another day wondering what or who? My head is exploding”.
The hearing in Flint heard how Mr Baines had taken a number of telephone calls from one pupil on a regular basis. The 14-year-old had been feeling down and rang almost nightly and Mr Baines would talk to him to try to cheer him up. His wife Jacqueline said the calls were always above board. But in October 2003 he was told he was being suspended.
Six months after his death, Mrs Baines received a letter from Wrexham council. It said that her husband had been suspended because he was receiving telephone calls from a “particular young person” and that the calls contained breaches of confidentiality that crossed professional borders. She told the hearing that if he had known the reason for his suspension he would still be here today.
His best friend Peter Clutton said that Mr Baines was “a bag of nerves” and said he was so upset he talked about suicide, which was totally against his character.
A father of four killed himself after being bullied by his managers for two years, an inquest has heard. Anthony McDermott, 50, left a letter explaining his factory floor ordeal before hanging himself. He worked for the same firm for 14 years but the hearing was told that at the end he found a bullying campaign “soul destroying and demeaning”.
The final straw came when a colleague took a photo of him having a cigarette outside the factory, which operates a no-smoking policy. The father of four was said to have been ridiculed after the picture was circulated on the firm's computer network. He complained to his manager but was issued with the firm's first warning for breaching the no-smoking policy.
Coroner John Pollard read a short extract from the handwritten note found in Mr McDermott's shirt pocket following his death. It said: “The reason for this is for the last two years I've been bullied at work by management and this includes a photo of myself being taken.” Mr Pollard recorded a verdict that Mr McDermott took his own life, but said he did not wish to comment on what had been worrying him.
No-one from the company - metal detector maker Mettler-Toledo Safeline Ltd of Salford - gave evidence at the Stockport inquest. Mr McDermott's daughter Victoria, 25, said: “I would like to see the people who bullied my father brought to justice.”
Hannah Kirkham, fast food worker, 18
An inquest has decided that a teenager took her own life after being bullied by fellow workers at a KFC restaurant. The hearing was told Hannah Kirkham, 18, was attacked and humiliated. After she left her job she suffered hallucinations and could not even watch KFC adverts on television.
Her mother Marie found her collapsed on the bedroom floor on 17 December 2003. She died in hospital nine days later. The inquest jury at Oldham Magistrates' Court said she meant to kill herself by taking an overdose, was clinically depressed and this was “significantly influenced” by bullying at work. Earlier, KFC had said the staff who bullied Hannah had since left the firm. It said it introduced anti-bullying policies, including a confidential helpline, following her death.
In a narrative verdict, the jury said: “Hannah intended to take her own life after a sustained period of clinically diagnosed severe depressive illness which was significantly influenced by bullying and harassment in the workplace.” Hannah had written a letter of complaint to the district manager at KFC on 4 December 2003 but this was only opened more than three months after her death.
The company said it had carried out a “thorough review” of policies with help from Hannah's parents, which had ensured it now had a system to prevent bullying or sexual harassment.
A family doctor hanged herself because of stress at work, an inquest has heard. Bury coroners' court was told Dr Dawn Harris, 38, who worked at the Lever Chambers practice in Bolton, became “angry, very distressed and quite hurt” by problems at the busy medical practice.
The inquest heard that Dr Harris was one of four GPs working at the NHS surgery, which has 6,700 people on its register. Although she loved caring for her patients, she was worried by the increasing governmental red tape and demands to meet an escalating number of targets.
Recording a verdict of suicide, the coroner, Simon Nelson, said that statistically there were a high number of cases of self-harm in the medical profession and questioned whether there existed systems to deal with the problem. “That is a matter for the governing body of that profession,” he said. According to a recent study, GPs' suicides run at two to three times that of the general population, with young women particularly at risk.
Jane Dibb, teacher, 28
A teacher who set herself alight had complained about pressure of work, an inquest has been told. North Devon coroner Elizabeth Earland recorded a verdict that Jane Dibb, who taught English and drama at Penair School in Truro, killed herself while the balance of her mind was disturbed.
The inquest heard that Ms Dibb, 28, had been complaining to her father about overwork. It was told that a depressive illness in the teacher had re-emerged in February 2003.
A Hazards special investigation
The decimation of Britain's industrial base was supposed to have one obvious upside - an end to dirty and deadly jobs.
In this 'Deadly business' series, Hazards reveals how a hands off approach to safety regulation means workers continue to die in preventable 'accidents' at work.
Meanwhile, an absence of oversight means old industrial diseases are still affecting millions, and modern jobs are creating a bloodless epidemic of workplace diseases - from 'popcorn lung' to work related suicide.