Firms warned of mental health challenge as return to work increases

Businesses have been warned that the move to remote working has created a mental health crisis and is likely to see efforts to appeal the legal precedent that has been in place for decades.

Zurich Resilience Solutions, part of Zurich Insurance Group has warned companies will need to focus on to how to educate, identify and manage the mental health risks associated with their workforce.

Zurich added: “As the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the fragility and dependence businesses have on a healthy and mentally well workforce, organisations are also seeing increasing evidence that investment into health and wellbeing is linked to greater levels of employee resilience, something which can help them remain competitive and helps support their long term business sustainability.”

In the UK figures from the Health & Safety Executive illustrate the rising scale of the problem.

  • over 50% of workplace absence is due to stress-related conditions.
  • The annual cost to employers of poor mental health is estimated to be in the region of £45 billion, with more than half of this attributed to presenteeism (£27-£29 billion).
  • The average cost of mental health absence per employee ranges from £1,475 to £2,277. This is similar across the public and private sectors.
  • A total of 12.8 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
  • There is an average return of £5 for every £1 spent on mental health intervention.

Andrea Steer, Wellbeing Lead, Zurich Resilience Solutions warned the pandemic will have far reaching and long lasting effects of the shape of the workplace of the future.

“The revolutionisation of the modern workplace has been significantly fast-forwarded as a result of the pandemic,” she added. “Therefore, fear, uncertainty and lack of clarity clouds many people’s outlook when it comes to the future of how they will work.

“Organisations therefore need to ask themselves, are they managing the obvious risks around remote working as well as they could?

“Increased use of technology has led to a level of human detachment not previously experienced. And new risks such as an ‘always on’ mentality and the concept of ‘leavism’, employees working excess hours to impress their boss, only lead to increased mental health risks.”

There are growing concerns that the changes will see challenges to the current legal precedent on the approach to work related stress claims.

The current laws have remained unchanged for nearly twenty years. Hatton v Sutherland (2002) said that employers are not liable for stress-induced illness unless it was reasonably foreseeable, remains the governing authority. However, there are rising numbers of experts who said this needs to be re-examined as the precedent originated from an environment where managers saw employees on a daily basis, and management styles were subsequently more authoritative.

“As the last year has shown us, for some industries the traditional 9-5 working day no longer exists, with employees being given more freedom about where and when they perform their role,” added Zurich. “This has changed the way in which employers and their people communicate and presents a new challenge for management in terms of how they monitor the health and wellbeing of employees.”

It is also possible that the increased focus on mental health in the workplace and the pressures brought about by enforced homeworking related to Covid19 will see an increase in the number of claims linked to mental health.

“Stress affects individuals, their families and colleagues by impacting on their physical and mental health but it also has a negative effect on employers with costs relating to sickness absence, replacement staff, lost productivity and increased accidents,” added the insurer.

Ms Steer explained: “It is imperative that employers continue to develop their own policies to manage the unintended consequences of these risks – as well as develop a healthy work culture by demonstratable leadership behaviours. After all, a collective strong mental health can lead to strong and sustainable companies.

“It is also only a matter of time before the legal precedent Hatton v Sutherland will be challenged by claimants in the context of the ongoing workplace revolution. I predict that the landscape of workplace stress claims will change and develop in the coming years, which may well result in an increase in claims unless employers adapt to the challenges of the modern workplace.”