Stress costs Scottish public sector hundreds of millions each year

Ahead of their annual conference Scotland’s leading Health and Safety Charity Scottish Hazards has today released a major new piece of research into the huge extent of workplace stress in the nation’s public sector.

The analysis reveals the massive cost both in human and financial terms that work place stress costs our public services.

Spokesperson for Scottish Hazards Ian Tasker said: “The impact of ideologically unsound austerity measures has not only had a devastating impact on the quality of our public services but, far more importantly, public sector cuts are harming the health, safety and wellbeing of workers seeking to deliver these services with a vastly reduced workforce and increasing demands placed upon them by employers. “

Scottish Hazards said it submitted requests under the Freedom of Information to all organisations where they were of the view that organisation had a significant number of employees or the services such as provision of additional support needs in education or secure accommodation may suggest more stressful work environments.

The questions were designed to gather information on staffing levels, sickness absence costs, costs in relation to work related stress, whether they had carried out an organisational stress risk.

Of the 159 requests submitted, 96 provided full or partial responses, 63 provided costs for overall sickness absence of £421m for 2017/18, only 44 could break down costs relating to mental ill health. This amounted to £112.5m for 2017/18.

Thirty organisations reported losing a combined total of 336,000 working days because of work-related stress.

Scottish Hazards believes these costs and the figure of days lost to be significantly underestimated due to lack of information held by employers on sickness absence costs and the number of large organisations that chose not to respond in any way to our requests.

From the information provided Scottish Hazards would suggest only 37 per cent of the employers are carrying out adequate risk assessments using the HSE Management Standards, Work Positive or other appropriate stress risk assessment tool. This is substantially lower than the views expressed by health and safety reps in the TUC survey where 46 per cent of reps felt risk assessment were adequate.

Some employers reported carrying out individual risk assessments as and when required. This is entirely unsatisfactory, it is completely reactive, not preventative and suggests workplace stress is a problem for the individual, not organisational. Significant job losses in Scottish Local Government and increased sickness absence costs, even in organisations where staffing numbers increased, would suggest otherwise.

Scottish Hazards said the figures it has gathered are an indication of the burden placed on Scottish taxpayers to meet the costs of ill health in our public sector.

The charity also said the real cost is likely to be far higher than it had been able to estimate as some organisations failed to respond at all and a large number did not hold information on sickness absence costs in any form, either for overall sickness absence or for absences related to stress and mental ill health.

Scottish Hazards said the key to addressing work related ill health and injury at work is to create safer, healthier and fairer work for all. Employers should develop workplaces and workplace policies in consultation with their workers, policies that deliver opportunity for every worker and policies that provide secure, fulfilling and respectful work.

There should be a refocus on fairness and not the approach taken by many employers to manage sick workers by draconian workplace procedures such as sickness absence and performance management, procedures that are an anathema to fair work.

We also need to get a far more accurate picture of sickness absence, including differentiating between general ill health and work-related absence.

In order to reverse the trend of increased sickness costs, Scottish Hazards said it believes the Scottish Government need to develop some radical proposals including;

· Commissioning a study on the health economy of our workplaces to better understand the costs of occupational ill health to individuals, the Government and employers (public and private) and how investment in state delivered occupational health services may have an economic advantage for our country.

· To develop a preventative approach to tackling occupational ill health, investing in occupational health, reaping the benefits in later years. It is estimated that for every £1 an employer invests in occupational health they will get £8 back

· Creation of an occupational health and safety system based on some of the Nordic countries involving trade unions and employers from design to delivery. This should be a long-term strategy to include workforce planning and higher education to ensure demand for occupational health and allied health professionals can be met in future.

· Develop a model for reporting sickness absence data across all public sector employers to include staffing levels, incidences of absences related in injury and ill health caused by work, days lost as a result of work-related ill health and costs of general ill health and ill health related to work

· Public sector employers should have to implement the HSE Stress Management Standards and produce evidence that steps are being taken to tackle work related stress

· Public sector employers in Scotland should have to produce an annual report on working conditions, sickness absence and occupational health and safety.

· Putting occupational health and safety at the top of the Fair Work agenda by ensuring that private and third sector companies seeking public contracts can evidence fair treatment of all workers suffering ill health, whether work related or not.