'One in ten sick days recorded at work during the last year were due to mental health conditions according to the latest ONS figures'
Andrew Pakes is Deputy General Secretary and Director of Research and Communications at Prospect trade union, which represents 150,000 members across the public and private sectors
One in ten sick days recorded at work during the last year were due to mental health conditions according to the latest ONS figures. These figures include stress, depression, anxiety and serious mental health problems. After the collective trauma of the pandemic, these figures may not be surprising, but they are deeply worrying.
Stress was a growing issue before the pandemic. In the last full year before the pandemic, 18 million days were lost at work due to anxiety and mental health conditions. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that between 1992 and 2017, the proportion of employees reporting working ‘under a great deal of tension’ increased from half to nearly two thirds, explained at least in part by the rise in people using digital technology and computers at work.
This is why trade unions are increasingly seeing mental health as a union issue. Increasing insecurity at work remains one of the hallmarks of our recovery from the pandemic, even if headline unemployment figures are low.
While some of us may be gaining from the benefits of home working, for others the experience has been really challenging. A third of remote workers said their work-related mental health got worse during the pandemic, in a poll conducted by Opinium for Prospect in 2021. The same number said they also found it hard to fully switch off from work, leading to Prospect campaigning for new digital boundaries and a right to disconnect.
The pandemic has amplified existing inequalities and created further uncertainties around job security, family incomes and the future of work. Digital technology has made it easier to work from anywhere, but it has also added to our always-on culture making it easier for work to also follow us anywhere. The rapid growth in surveillance software, investment in automation and new technologies make change even more likely in the future.
The world of work is changing, but the regulations that govern it are not. Even before the pandemic, the increasing trend for home working and the growth of self-employment and freelancing were leaving gaps in our health and safety laws and working time regulations.
These trends, combined with our increased understanding of the risks of stress and poor mental health, are not accounted for by current legislation, which often looks at risk through the prism of the 20th century industrial economy.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness, something many of us can experience in an office or working remotely. In rethinking work, we need action by employers and government to make respect and mental health mainstream work issues.
There is already evidence about the positive role of unions in ensuring workspaces are safe and healthy. The Health & Safety Executive reports: “Workplace research provides evidence to suggest that involving workers has a positive effect on health and safety performance. Equally, there is strong evidence that unionised workplaces and those with health and safety representatives are safer and healthier as a result.”
Rewarding and secure work needs to be central to our vision for a good life. If we want to build a better economy as we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, then we need to look at putting wellbeing alongside security and fair pay as the ingredients to help people get on at work. Prospect has already collaborated with the Work Foundation and employers to produce a practical guide to negotiating digital boundaries at work. The latest International Labour Organisation report on social partnership also made clear that ‘collective bargaining played a crucial role during the pandemic’ by helping to keep people safe, protect jobs and promote wellbeing.
The challenge is two-fold: to ensure wellbeing and mental health are central to the future of work, and that we have the legal framework in place to ensure workers have a voice over what that means in practice.