REVEALED: Unite union reps report surge in mental health issues at work

While some employers have stepped up during the pandemic, it's public health bodies which are side-lining union reps.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union.

This time last year I wrote for Left Foot Forward about what a unique survey of over 1000 Unite representatives revealed about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on workplaces across Britain.

A new Unite Research report published today, based on a survey of some 1,400 Unite reps, and drawing on their valuable insights, revisits some of those questions a year on as well as focusing on some specific workplace health and safety issues.

Mental health: a worsening picture

Over eight in ten (83%) respondents reported having to deal with an increase in members reporting mental health-related issues, a huge 18 percentage point rise on the 65% which topped the May 2020 survey.

Last year I referred to the increase in members reporting mental health-related issues as “revealing a hidden human cost of the lockdown”. This remains an issue of vital and growing importance, as does practical public policy support for mental health services.

Unite continues to call on employers to take a proactive approach to dealing with employees’ mental health challenges immediately as workers return to the workforce and begin to adjust to revised working conditions. This must include carrying out risk assessments with Unite’s involvement.

There was also a large jump in increases of dealing with ‘bullying’ to 40% from 26%.

Other issues that respondents reported increases in include ‘concerns over pregnancy, maternity, paternity, adoption or other family leave’ (33%), discrimination issues, and applications for Universal Credit (see table below).

Increases in members’ issues dealt with by Unite reps over the past year

Note: (Question: In your capacity as a Unite rep, have you had to deal with an increase in the following during the crisis? (Tick as many as apply) (N=982)

Reckless vs responsible

There has been an increase in the proportion of reps reporting that their employer is responding responsibly to the Covid pandemic, up 12 percentage points from 63% to 75%. The proportion reporting that their employer is responding recklessly fell from 18% to 8%.

It is also worth noting that that there is a difference between ‘responsible’ and ‘reckless’ employers depending on whether the employer has consulted with reps over Covid-19 issues. This is explored further towards the end of this blog.

However, two in ten respondents (20%) reported that their workplace didn’t have adequate Covid-19 protection measures. Asked to tick the areas where inadequate provisions were made, 79% identified ‘social distancing measures’, 48% ‘ventilation’, 47% ‘Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)’, and 47% ‘hygiene measures’. 21% also cited ‘other’ examples such as lack of testing.

Making a difference

Unite reps continue to deliver a ‘union premium’, not least in respect of their role in negotiating and being consulted on work issues relating to Covid-19.

Just over half of respondents (52%) reported the negotiation of policies specific to Covid-19, the most popular being ‘Health & Safety’ (71%), ‘Use of holidays’ (61%), ‘Sickness’ (59%) and ‘Home/lone working’ (56%). 34% reported the negotiation of pay policies specific to Covid-19.

And 80% of respondents said that their employer had consulted with them on Covid-19 issues. Of those consulted, 88% said that the consultation was ‘on an ongoing basis’, with 12% reporting it was a ‘one off’.

Further analysis also shows that reps who say they have been consulted are much more likely to say that their employer is responding responsibly to the Covid-19 crisis than those who have not been consulted (82% compared to 48%).

Conversely, reps who have not been consulted are more than twice as likely to say that their employer has responded recklessly than those who have been consulted (17% compared to 6%).

Side-lined by government?

Nearly a third of respondents (30%) reported having had a workplace visit from a regulator/health authority around Covid-19 issues or someone acting on their behalf. The most reported visits were from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Health and Safety Authority in ROI) (58%), Local Authority/Government (30%), and Health Authority (19%).

However, only just over a third (35%) of respondents reporting a visit from a regulator/health authority said the regulator had spoken to the reps when they visited.

This is a very alarming finding as this issue has been raised by Unite with all the regulators concerned, who insist that contacting reps on visits is a matter of course.

Regulators do not produce official figures on this issue in regular reports providing little accountability. This finding demonstrates that this needs to change.  Unite has also pointed out how the HSE and local authorities are under incredible financial pressure due to a decade of cuts. 

Trade unions and union workplace representatives have been at the forefront of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis at work, making a real and positive difference to people’s lives. Good, responsible employers have recognised this and worked with them.

But the work of trade union representatives also needs to be supported by public policy and political action.

This latest report, as well as last year’s Unite reps survey, shows that we need stronger trade unions to create healthier, safer workplaces and a fairer post-Covid economy.

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