Hazards banner
       Hazards, number 156, 2021
TEAR UP | HSE must admit there is a stress catastrophe under its nose and act
It’s the top cause of work-related sick leave. And the great and good are backing a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) campaign to help you cope with your stress at work. But with cases in the last two years at an all-time high, Hazards editor Rory O’Neill warns hankies and hand-holding won’t hack it. You need to rip up their blueprint and take control at work.


It at least gave the impression of a call to action.

Launching a new Working Minds campaign in November 2021, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chief executive Sarah Albon said: “Work-related stress and poor mental health should be treated with the same significance as risks of poor physical health and injury.” She warned: “No worker should suffer in silence and if we don’t act now to improve workers’ mental health, this could evolve into a health and safety crisis.”

This was some understatement from the HSE chief.

HSE’s latest figures, released in December 2021, show there were 822,000 workers suffering with work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2020/21, which HSE said ‘was not statistically different’ to the 828,000 cases in 2019/20. Both figures are over a third higher than at any other time in history.

The last two years have seen at least 200,000 people more suffering mental health problems related to their work than in any other previous year. The figures are up from a then record 602,000 in 2018/19, this topping the previous record 595,000 affected workers in 2017/18 (Hazards 148).

According to the new HSE statistics, stress now accounts for half of all new and long-standing cases of work-related disease.

Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, HSE, 16 December 2021.
Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2021, HSE, 2021.


The last two years, 2019-2021, mark a high after a year-on-year increase since 2014/15, when HSE’s estimate was around 500,000 workers affected – indicating a shocking increase of around 60 per cent, or over 300,000 workers, in just six years.
These HSE statistics expose a situation that has evolved way beyond a crisis. It is an out of control catastrophe.

Making it better?

The Working Minds campaign has a lengthy list of supporters. These include Mind, the NHS, the conciiiation service Acas, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Federation of Small Businesses and the UK Home Care Association.

HSE said the campaign “is calling for a culture change across Britain’s workplaces, to ensure psychological risks are treated the same as physical ones in health and safety risk management.” It added “it is reminding business that no matter where people work, employers have a legal duty to assess the risks in the workplace, not just in terms of potential hazards and physical safety. They should also promote good working practices. It says this promotes an open environment where employees can share their concerns and discuss options to ease pressures.”

SUICIDAL MOVE? HSE is still refusing to make a simple rule change so work-related suicide becomes reportable under the RIDDOR Regulations. But a new online guide does break new ground in recognising for the first time the possible work-related causes and the duty on employers to address them. more

HSE said the campaign would help businesses to recognise the signs of work-related stress and make tackling related issues routine. Sarah Albon explained: “Our campaign is focused on giving employers a clear reminder of their duties while championing reducing work-related stress and promoting good mental health at work.”

Former Conservative health and safety minister Sarah Newton, appointed chair of HSE by current Conservative DWP secretary of state Thérèse Coffey in July 2020, said the regulator’s message focused on “the five R’s” – Reach out, Recognise, Respond, Reflect, and make it Routine – backed up by a Stress Indicator tool and Talking Toolkit, “which employers can use to proactively ensure the wellbeing of their workforce.

“Part of this is creating a culture where workers can feel as comfortable raising issues of stress as reporting that they have gone down with flu,” she said. “Organisations of all sizes can adopt the Five Rs, which I would suggest results in another ‘R’ – resilience. Investment in the emotional and psychological resilience of any organisation’s greatest asset, its workforce, is an investment in your organisation’s success.”

Another ‘R’ – reality

It’s a hand-holding strategy that will dismay some. There is no mention of HSE’s primary, statutory role – to inspect and enforce safety at work. It is this hands-off strategy that the TUC has warned repeatedly is allowing the workplace stress crisis to escalate.

On 22 October 2021, Sarah Newton’s former colleagues in the Conservative government talked out a private member’s bill seeking to end fire and rehire, a practice used by firms to sack workers and reemploy them on worse terms and conditions. Polling published by the TUC in January 2021 revealed that nearly 1 in 10 (9 per cent) workers had been told to re-apply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions or face the sack.  Almost a quarter said their working terms had been downgraded since the first lockdown in March 2020.

  For some workers, work pressures can be enough to push them over the edge, recent suicide tragedies show. more

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This appalling practice gives unscrupulous employers free rein to threaten to sack workers in secure jobs if they don’t accept a new contract on worse pay or conditions.”

The growth in insecure work, increasing workloads and jacked-up work pace (Hazards 156) driven by management systems devolved to artificial intelligence and performance management systems that mean work targets get incrementally less achievable, set the context in which HSE does its job.

When HSE calls on employers to treat stress like physical hazards, it needs to take these real-life work experiences into account – and make employers account for an erosion of work rights that can do nothing but exacerbate stress.

Stress what works

HSE says employers have a legal duty to look at the impact of their wider management actions, including considering “the impact of change, redundancies and job security.”

But the soaring stress body count shows HSE’s polite entreaties are clearly not working. The regulator, despite stressing employers’ legal duties to management mental health risks, is singularly failing to hold to account those negligent employers willing to sacrifice their workers’ mental health. Nowhere in the statements from HSE chief Sarah Albon or HSE chair Sarah Newton is there any mention of the need for justice for the victims of stress-inducing neglect at work. There’s no HSE plan to inspect, investigate and enforce.

Prosecutions for neglecting to protect the mental health of workers are virtually unheard of. And HSE insists even the most desperate manifestation of stress at work – suicide – does not merit a simple rule change to require its reporting and recording (Hazards 155).

Instead, the headline on HSE’s 16 November 2021 news release announcing the Working Minds campaign said it will just “encourage employers to promote good mental health in work.”

But goodwill is evidently in short supply. A campaign, a web page and a news release don’t hack it. Without empowerment of workers backed up with enforcement by HSE, workers will not be able to assert the control over their work that is considered central to HSE’s stress management standards. HSE is instead looking on as work spirals out of control.

Risks are still going uncontrolled. Instead, HSE’s 5R’s becomes an officially sanctioned recipe for workers to be controlled, mollified and monitored – and when this fails, medicated or just let go.

Sources and resources

HSE news release and Working Minds campaign.
HSE ‘reporting a concern’ update, advice on How to report a work related stress concern, Tackling stress workbook, stress management standards and other HSE workplace stress resources.
TUC guide to responding to harmful work-related stress; and Tackling workplace stress using the HSE Stress Management Standards, TUC and HSE guidance for health and safety representatives.
Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, HSE, 16 December 2021.
Work-related ill health and occupational disease in Great Britain, HSE, 2020/21.
Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2021, HSE, 2021.
Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2020, HSE, 2020.
Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain 2019, HSE, 2019.
Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2018, HSE, 31 October 2018.

For some, work pressures pushed them over the edge

Supermarket worker Linda Salmon (above) killed herself two days after being signed off with anxiety because of her fear of falling ill with Covid. When the lockdown happened in spring 2020, the key worker became concerned about becoming infected. She was signed off work and several days later she took her own life. Her husband David said he believed the menopause was a “big contribution” to her mental state and that worries about the pandemic had “pushed her over the edge.”

June Clark, the widow of a man who killed himself almost two years after being unfairly dismissed by Glasgow City Council, has been awarded £18,936.26 in compensation. Kevin Clark (right), who was 49, was suspended then fired from his job as a road sweeper after getting into a fight with a colleague. His bosses accepted baseless claims that he had been under the influence of alcohol at work. His depression worsened after he lost his job and went on benefits. In an October 2021 employment tribunal ruling, judge Amanda Jones was critical of managers’ “selective” use of evidence to get Clark sacked, and their acceptance of “quite incredible” claims Clark had been drinking on the job.

Simon Pick (right), a hotel bar worker who had struggled with alcohol, drug and money problems, died after a deliberate overdose of a painkiller, four days after he lost his job. On 8 May 2021, an ambulance was called to the 37-year-old’s home, and he told paramedics that “he wished to end his life.” He died in hospital two days later. Speaking at a November 2021 inquest, his brother Nathan said: “Simon worked in hospitality all his life, he struggled with alcohol and drug dependency. He got fired from his job on the 6th from a hotel company and I think that was the catalyst for the decision that he made.”

Back to main story

Is HSE edging closer to acting on suicide?

While new HSE guidance on suicide prevention included in its stress resources continues to emphasise “suicides in the workplace are not RIDDOR reportable”, it does break new ground in clearly recognising possible work-related causes and the duty on employers to address them. The move comes after a Hazards campaign described HSE’s work-related suicide opt out as “standing by and watching as workers die” (Hazards 148).

The new HSE suicide prevention webpage acknowledges the work association. “Employers have a duty of care to workers and to ensuring their health, safety and welfare. HSE promotes action that prevents or tackles any risks to worker’s physical and mental health, for example due to work-related stress,” it notes.

“These risks can lead to physical and/or mental ill health and, potentially, suicidal ideation, intent and behaviour. As an employer, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of work contributing to the causes of suicide.”

Advising employers to “manage the risk”, the webpage adds: “Work-related factors may contribute to feelings of humiliation or isolation. An issue or combination of issues such as job insecurity, discrimination, work stressors and bullying may play their part in people becoming suicidal.”

It continues: “Tackle potential mental health triggers such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. Consider the impact of change, redundancies and job security.

“Consider things happening at work that are likely to be additionally stressful for workers, for example: change, no matter how small; reorganisation, especially if this may lead to job losses; disciplinary action.”

But the regulator could and should go further. HSE’s operational guidance to its inspectors on responding to ‘Matters of Evident Concern and Potential Major Concern’ – MECs and MPMCs – require HSE inspectors “to consider at site visits whether there are risks normally requiring immediate formal enforcement action (MECs) or other risks present that could lead to multiple fatalities or multiple causes of ill-health and, if so, take appropriate action. These high consequence events are designated as MPMCs” (Hazards 155).

The safety regulator envisages a broad application of this requirement. HSE’s inspection guidance on dermatitis, for example, says: “In addition during inspection visits, inspectors should proactively consider if there are hazards which have the potential to cause multiple cases of dermatitis (Matter of Potential Major Concern or MPMC).”

The same approach could be used to trigger investigations of work-related suicides, suicide patterns or evidence of suicide ideation (suicidal thoughts), enabling action to prevent the fatal and non-fatal work-related causes. But HSE chooses not to.

HSE has 87 of these internal MPMC operational guides. Adding ‘work-related suicide’ to a list that includes everything from ‘occupational asthma’, to ‘bore holes’ and ‘cattle incidents’ shouldn’t be beyond its capabilities.

Suicidal: HSE must recognise, record and investigate work-related suicides, Hazards, number 155, 2021.

Back to main story Top of the page




Tear up

It’s the top cause of work-related sick leave. And the great and good are backing a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) campaign to help you cope with your stress at work. But with cases in the last two years at an all-time high, Hazards editor Rory O’Neill warns hankies and hand-holding won’t hack it. You need to rip up their blueprint and take control at work.

Making it better?
Another ‘R’ - reality
Stress what works
Sources and resources

Related stories
For some, work pressures pushed them over the edge
Is HSE edging closer to acting on suicide?

Hazards webpages
Hazards news
Work and health
Work suicide


Use the Hazards e-postcard to tell the HSE to recognise, record and take action to prevent work-related suicides.