The Health and Safety Executive and mental health in the workplace

As all employer organisations are no doubt aware, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is concerned with the regulation of workplace health, safety and welfare. Historically, the HSE has focused upon the safety aspect of their role, for example investigating and taking enforcement action following an incident that has usually resulted in a physical injury. There is however a growing focus by the HSE on the regulation of health and welfare in the workplace, and it is now investigating historic workplace illnesses, such a Mesothelioma, Vibration White Finger and work related stress on a regular basis.

Work-related stress statistics

Work-related stress, anxiety or depression (work-related stress), is defined as a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.

The HSE’s recent annual publication of statistics for work-related stress 2018/2019 records that 602,000 workers reported suffering from work related stress (new or longstanding) in response to the Labour Force Survey. During that time, 246,000 new cases of work-related stress were reported, which is an incidence rate of approximately 740 per 100,000 workers. This resulted in 12.8 million working days lost due to work-related stress, which is an average of 21.2 days per case. Indeed, work-related stress amounted in 2018/2019 to 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health.

The primary cause of work-related stress was reported to be workload pressures. In public service industries, public administration and defence, work-related stress was more prevalent, especially in professional occupations.

These statistics reflect workers who have reported that they are suffering from work-related stress, however, many workers do not report that they are suffering from work-related stress due to the continuing stigma attached to mental health illness and concern as to the effect on their position with their employer.

The management of work-related stress

Most organisations are aware of their duties in relation to the management of risk to prevent physical injury of employees and members of the public as far as reasonably practicable but may not be aware that that duty also extends to the management of risk to mental health.

Most organisations are aware of the importance of safeguarding employees’ mental health. However taking active preventative steps to manage mental health risks in the workplace beyond simply paying lip service is required to comply with the aforementioned legislation.

The HSE has published guidance for organisations to assist in undertaking reasonably practicable measures to ensure, as far as possible, the mental health of their employees, which includes:

  • HSE Updated First Aid Guidance – Suggests how an organisation could manage mental health risks in the work place appropriate for its business. Suggestions include providing information or training for managers and employees, employing occupational health professionals, appointing mental health trained first aiders, mental health champions and mental health employee support programmes. 
  • Stress Indicator Tool - An anonymous survey of employees to assist an organisation in determining employees’ attitudes and perceptions to work-related stress to assist an organisation in establishing the extent of the issue within its business and then putting in place reasonable adjustments to ensure employees’ mental health.
  • The Management Standards Approach to Mental Health - Assists organisations to take a proactive and preventative approach to managing work-related stress, suggesting a systematic approach to implementing organisational risk assessments for managing work-related stress.

Enforcement action by the HSE

The HSE is clear that organisations have a legal duty to protect employees from work-related stress by completing a risk assessment and thereafter acting on the results by making reasonable adjustments or taking reasonably practicable measures to control that risk in their business. The HSE has also made clear that, as with any other workplace hazard, if an employer fails to adequately protect its employees from work-related stress the HSE can investigate and take enforcement action if appropriate.

At the time of writing, Kennedys are unaware of any enforcement action taken by the HSE in relation to work-related stress but we anticipate that it will likely be taken in the near future. Indeed, in December 2019 in France, three former bosses at France Telecom were jailed over a restructuring policy linked to suicides of employees, and the company was fined £64,000. Although that was an extreme case, in our view it is only a matter of time before a prosecution is brought here, and with fines being significantly higher here than in the rest of Europe (in line with the Definitive Sentencing Guideline), any such case is likely to attract significant media attention and set a precedent for the future regulation of risk to employees’ mental health. It is anticipated that, like in France, any enforcement action taken by the HSE will likely be in relation to a group of employees experiencing work-related stress rather than one individual, due to the complex nature of mental health which is subjective and can be affected by a number of variables.


The majority of the population will experience mental health issues during their life time. It is an issue that can affect anyone, at any level within an organisation and can be related to personal issues, work-related pressures or an exacerbation of personal stressors due to work-related pressure. An employee experiencing work-related stress may also suffer from physical symptoms.

Organisations should take account of all available guidance in relation to the management of work-related stress within their business via their procedures and processes. Relevant adjustments and measures should be implemented to ensure the mental health of an organisation’s employees, and these should be regularly reviewed as to their effectiveness by ensuring that mental health forms a part of health and safety discussions during board and managerial meetings.

Read other items in Health, Safety and Environment Brief - April 2020

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