Is the UK Doing Enough to Tackle Work-related Stress? 

Is the UK Doing Enough to Tackle Work-related Stress? 

In honour of April being stress awareness month, the Grae Matta Foundation takes a deeper dive into the UK’s stress statistics and employee protection policies.  

In today’s highly driven society, stress almost feels as though it is a natural component of our life, found in every corner of our daily lifestyle. Whether stress manifests itself in the demands of work and deadlines, in the face of financial decisions, or through our societal relationships, most adults and young adults have experienced the obstructive effects of stress on our health and ability to function. But what do reports declare about lived stress in the UK? And what is our biggest cause of stress?  

UK Stress-related Statistics  

Unsurprisingly to most readers, the preponderance of UK adults (79%) reported feeling stressed at least one day a month in the year 2021. A survey revealed that people feel stressed for an average of 8.27 days a month (Ciphr). That’s almost a third of the month spent feeling stressed!   

The leading cause of stress has been reported to be work-related stress, with 79% of reports acknowledging it as their main source of stress (Statistica). The number of workers reporting work-related mental health troubles, such as being stressed or suffering from depression, has more than doubled since 2008/2009, reaching 875,000 thousand in 2022/2023 (Statistica) and is currently the primary work-related ill-health in the United Kingdom.  

 But why should we care if we’re stressed?  

The Impact of Work Stress on Health and Society 

Even though we currently regard the issue of stress as mundane, especially in the context of the workplace workload and deadlines, stress significantly impacts our health. While low levels of stress could positively affect the immune system, high and prolonged levels of stress can develop serious illnesses (1). In fact, prolonged stress has been linked to six leading causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, increased accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide (1). These crises portray enough grounds to grant stress rates significant attention from the government to safeguard its people.  

The reality of workplace stress does not only infiltrate moral and human angles of discussion but also leads to a powerful impact on the economic decisions of a nation. AXA UK and Centre for Business and Economic Research (Cebr) reveal that workplace stress and burnout generate 23.3m sick days a year and are costing the UK a staggering £28bn a year. This evaluation consists mostly of tallying absenteeism days, which cost £23.3bn alone while attributing the rest to decreased employee productivity, higher organisational turnover rates, and surging healthcare costs. The same survey indicated that adults are struggling with stress in the UK more than any other country surveyed, including other European, American, and Asian countries. Such numbers should unquestionably alert UK policymakers and organisation heads to implement a change to the foundation of British employees’ working conditions.  

UK Policy Tackling Workplace Stress 

The impact of poor working conditions has been relevant enough in the past to garner policymakers’ attention. However, the gravity of the rising number of stressed-out employees has not been sufficient to propel the creation of concrete plans tackling the matter in question.  

When reviewing UK legislation aimed at safeguarding employees, we can extract two policies that have been put in place since the late 1900s that compel organisations to protect their employees. The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA 1974) remains the primary umbrella policy established to protect employees from work-related ill health and injury. Under the regulations of this act, employers possess an obligation to protect the health, safety, and well-being of workers (as well as others), relating to operations conducted by the organisation or activity on its premises. The subsequent policy that has been implemented is The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The latter policy requires employers to carry out organisational health and safety assessments and record their findings in writing. Mental and ill health would fall under the risk evaluation companies are expected to perform. But are these findings monitored?  

The role of assessor and implementor is largely, if not solely, monitored by the employers themselves. In other words, the policy set out by the government only dictates an expectation of organisations to maintain a vague level of safe working conditions. There is no legal standard to abide by, nor a monitoring mechanism or governmental party interfering in such evaluations. Therefore, there’s no set benchmark for what level of organisational stress is redeemed positive, and which numbers should be acted upon immediately.  

Luckily, organisations have several intrinsic motivators to strive for enhanced working conditions and stress reduction. Apart from directly impacting absenteeism and turnover rates, reduced stress and positive working environments ripple into company performance, as well as the company’s ability to attract top talents to the workforce and consumers who care for ethical practices. But are these intrinsic incentives enough to tackle the stress figures the nation is facing?  

Many UK employers have already set strategies to tackle stress and mental health concerns within their organisations. According to the CIPD report, 53% of surveyed companies had developed and implemented employee wellbeing plans, and 69% are currently prioritizing wellbeing in their strategic direction. The rates aren’t wickedly poor but still have considerable room for improvement.  

The cardinal question remains whether the government should have agency over the health and safety reports generated by UK organisations. Currently, the primary repercussions employers face if they present poor working conditions are either the rise of strikes by employee unions or lawsuits in the form of legal claims by distressed employees. Both these consequences are reactive -in nature- to existing poor conditions. For more proactive actions,  the government could set state-issued standards with a threshold of alarming work-distress rates. Accordingly, organisations would prioritize employees’ well-being by incorporating corrective measures, now that governmental repercussions are at stake, such as official warnings or imposed fines.  

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to be recommended. Nevertheless, the definite answer is taking action in strategizing plans to tackle the multitude of reasons that are causing nationwide work-related stress, mainly in light of poor financial ability to withstand the rising cost of living.