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HSE statistics lay bare the pandemic’s impact on workplace mental health

What do the numbers say...

Introduction

On 16 December 2021, the HSE published its annual ‘Summary Statistics’, which cover the first full year of the pandemic – April 2020 to March 2021. The statistics provide an interesting insight upon the impact of COVID-19, not only in relation to cases contracted through workplace exposure, but upon mental health and workplace ill health.

The accompanying press release from the Chief Executive of the HSE, Sarah Albon, is instructive and includes the following;

“The latest figures on work related stress reinforce our previous concerns around the scale of this issue in the workplace”.

Summary headlines

  • 93,000 workers (self-report) contracting COVID-19 from workplace exposure                                                                                   
  • 850,000workers suffering from a new incident of work related ill health 
  • 451,000 new cases of workplace stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/2021 – an increase on the pre-pandemic figure of 347,000
  • 400,000 non-fatal workplace injuries – a reduction of 300,000 from the pre-pandemic figure. In broad percentage terms, a reduction of 40%
  • Lung diseases where death is linked to workplace exposure remain static at 12,000
  • 500,000 new and existing cases of workplace musculoskeletal disorders.

Context and caveats

The statistics rely for the most part upon Labour Force, self -report studies, which the HSE recognise may under or overestimate the true position.

The statistics do not this year include the number of lost working days or any data on violence at work. It is assumed in relation to the latter that this has increased, given the evidence from other research studies and anecdotal examples reported in the media.

In more detail

Workplace mental health

Whilst the combined number of new and longstanding cases of workplace stress, depression and anxiety is comparable to the pre-pandemic position, at just over 800,000 cases, there has been a significant rise – an additional 104,000 new cases seen in 2020/2021compared to the previous year, a rise in percentage terms of 30%.

Whilst recognising that these are self-reported cases and that the wider negative impact of the pandemic on mental health is not addressed here, this does explain the launch of the HSE’s “Working Minds” campaign last month and the inclusion of questions on mental health management as part of the HSE’s current “COVID spot checks’ inspections.

Those sectors with the highest levels per capita are, perhaps unsurprisingly, public administration, health/social care and education, three sectors which have borne the brunt of the pandemic and where, for the most part, their employees have been unable to work from home. Pre-pandemic, the sector with the highest rate of workplace stress, depression and anxiety was the electricity, gas and steam supply sector – which does not feature this year amongst the most prevalent sectors impacted by workplace mental health. 

Emerging mental health research has dominated the headlines in medical journals in recent weeks and is likely to be at the forefront both of HSE and employers focus for the foreseeable future.

Workplace COVID-19 contraction

The 93,000 self- reported cases need to be compared to the much lower total of 37,000 cases which have been reported by employers under RIDDOR (for the full period March 2020 to November 2021) as likely, on the balance of probabilities, to result from occupational exposure.

There does however remain a degree of consistency between the two sets of data as to the sectors most impacted – human health, social care and education. This also follows the pattern evidenced in workplace mental health statistics.

Direct COVID-19 claims have been very low in statistical terms since the start of the pandemic and whilst we expect these to rise in 2022, probably on the back of IIAC prescription for certain occupation types, the intrinsic difficulties in establishing both breach and occupational causation will, we feel, militate against these appearing in high volumes.

Work related ill health

In 2019/2020,638000 new cases of work-related ill-health were reported with a combined total of 1.6 million new or longstanding cases. Whilst workplace stress, depression and anxiety accounted for the majority (51%), it is instructive that these now make up 70% of the total for 2020/2021 of 850,000 new cases – in itself showing a significant rise of 33% compared to the Pre-pandemic position.

The contribution of musculoskeletal disorders to work-related ill-health has also dipped from 30% of the total in 2019/2020 to just 13% in 2020/21.

Fatal and non-fatal workplace injuries

The HSE released separately, much earlier in the year, statistics for fatal accidents during the first year of the pandemic – showing a static figure of 142 deaths, which was in keeping with the previous five years average.

In relation to non-fatal statistics, this report does corroborate existing Portal and CRU claims data, namely that there has been a significant decline in workplace accidents during the pandemic. The reduction seen is a staggering 300,000 to 400,000 workplace accidents seen in 2020/2021, compared to the pre pandemic figure of 700,000.

We have already seen this feeding into a reduction in new claim notifications. We envisage this will have an ongoing impact for the next two to three years, both on new claims and litigation.

The reasons behind the decline are ostensibly home working, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the reduction in human interaction to comply with COVID-19 measures. We also believe that COVID-19 management, brought in by employers alongside the contribution of ‘operant conditioning’, with its focus on safety, culture and consequences has played an equally significant role.

Occupational disease to include musculoskeletal disorders

The statistics contain very little that is new in relation to long tail disease. The number of lung disease deaths linked to work has remained static at 12,000 deaths. Mesothelioma mortality is impacted by a time lag in reporting – 2019 deaths were reported by the HSE earlier in the year. For the record, they show a reduction compared to 2018 and are part of the long-predicted reduction in mesothelioma mortality, expected to be seen during this decade.

The number of musculoskeletal disorders reported by employees has increased modestly from 152,000 new cases to 162,000 in 2020/21. The effects of the pandemic are said to be a (non-specific) “contributory factor” to work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

HSE enforcement and prosecution

Unsurprisingly both enforcement (Prohibition and Improvement Notices) and prosecutions during the period 2020/2021 stand at their lowest level over the last six years. This should not, however, underestimate the work done by the HSE in being at the forefront of the nation’s response to the pandemic.

Conclusions

The pandemic’s impact on mental health will rightly take the headlines. We do however urge caution before concluding that this will necessarily translate into more claims for occupational stress and anxiety. Separating out the workplace-specific factors as opposed to the pandemic’s wider influence on mental health, establishing foreseeability and breach of duty will be difficult for claimants to achieve.

What, however, is clear, is that the focus for employers from an HR perspective must be to offer a package of support to employees for mental well-being, particularly as we move to a hybrid work pattern.

More generally, we feel the focus for personal injury claims over the next 12 to 24 months is likely to be on the health, social care and education sectors.                                                           

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