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Work-related stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic

449,000 out of the 822,000 with work related stress believed that their work related illness had been caused or was made worse by COVID.


On 16 December 2021 the HSE published its annual statistics covering work-related stress, anxiety, and depression. The statistics are based upon self-report data for the period April 2020 to March 2021, namely the first full year of the pandemic.

The headlines in brief?

822,000 workers suffered from work-related stress/depression/anxiety considered to be either new or long-standing. This compares to the pre-pandemic figure of 828,000, though of note, stress now accounts for 50% of all work-related ill health absences.

Of significance, the number of new cases of workplace stress, anxiety or depression rose during the pandemic by 104,000 – now standing at 451,000 compared to that previously of 347,000, a rise of almost 30%.

The statistics do not include the number of working days lost, which precludes a comparison with 2019/20 data which saw a staggering 17.9 million working days lost due to stress, anxiety or depression.

The effect of COVID

  • 93,000 workers suffered from COVID which they believe may have been caused by exposure at work, with the rate of self-reports some four times higher amongst workers in health and social work sectors.
  • 449,000 out of the 822,000 with work-related stress believed that their work-related illness had been caused or was made worse by COVID.
  • 32,110 COVID cases have been reported to the enforcement authorities by employers.

Causes of workplace stress, anxiety and depression

We have seen historically that the main factors causing stress (based on data for 2009/10 to 2011/12), in descending order and expressed as a rate per 100,000 employees, were:

  • workload (620)
  • lack of support (200)
  • violence
  • threats or bullying (180)
  • changes at work (110)
  • role uncertainty (70)
  • lack of control (30).

So if workload is the dominant cause of stress, we should expect cases to diminish amongst those employees on furlough, though incidents may rise amongst those covering for absent colleagues.

Which occupations are deemed the most stressful?

HSE research lists these in descending order as professional occupations, associate professional occupations, sales and customer service, managers, directors and senior officials, caring leisure, and other service occupations. The least stressful listed is skilled trade occupations.

Is gender relevant?

Yes, the most recent data shows that gender is relevant with females overall having a significantly higher rate of work-related stress/depression/anxiety and males significantly lower.

Gender Age Rate per 100,000 workers for 2018/19 to 2020/21
Female 25-34 3570
Male 25-34 2250
Female 35-44 2750
Male 35-44 2210
Female 45-54 2580
Male 45-54 1840
Female 55 + 2070
Male 55 + 1410
Female 16-24 1970
Male 16-24 1390

Is the size of your work -place relevant?

Yes – it appears that small workplaces (fewer than 50 employees) suffer from the lowest rates of workplace stress, anxiety and depression.

What does it all mean?

With such high rates of workplace stress allied to stress being responsible for 50% of employee absences there is an increased potential for a compensation claim to be made.

We accept that the overall picture may be more nuanced as there will be less opportunity for bullying, harassment and ‘overwork’ claims amongst furloughed employees.

For those employees working from home for part or the whole of a working week, there will be less scope for bullying and harassment but still the potential for overwork and for employees to feel isolated by having to work from home when preferring the office or factory.

Amongst a number of employees returning to the workplace after working from home for a long time, there will be many who are reluctant and others may consider that their return to work has been mismanaged, leading to absence and the potential for a claim against their employer.

Our experience of stress claims is that there is often a lag between the event and the claim being presented. If an increase in stress claims has not yet eventuated in your area, that does not signify that claims will not happen.

What can employers do?

Based upon the current HSE statistics, stress remains the predominant reason for workers to be off work and responsible for a staggering 50% of all employee absence.

The full effect of COVID has not impacted on the figures yet due to the longer lead-in times for a stress claim than a standard claim. Some workers will develop stress-related injury because of having to work from home. We have already seen claims related to this.

Other workers have not looked forward to returning to work whether full time or on a hybrid basis, preferring to be home working as afforded to many via the COVID epidemic. An unhappy employee is a fertile ground for becoming a stressed employee.

It remains important to have a clear insight in relation to the hours worked by employees which may of course be harder to have if workers continue to work from home either full time or for part of the week on a hybrid working model.

All employers should have established policies on stress, bullying and harassment. Such policies are not, on their own, enough. The best way to avoid an employee going off sick, or indeed a successful claim being made, is regular personal contact with the employee by way of a one to one, or even a more informal meeting. Such meetings should be documented and include not only performance issues but include questions such as ‘how are you?’ and ‘how are you getting on?’

They may seem like simple questions, asking people how they are. However, without asking, you are not going to find out if you are dealing with someone who has, or is about to develop, a work-related stress condition.

Clearly if your employee does disclose a work-related stress condition, then that leads on to a requirement to take action. If you are not sure what to do then ask someone. Do not ignore it. If you are in an organisation with a HR department, they would be the obvious first people to contact. If you do not have a HR department, speak to a senior colleague.

Conversely, if the employee when questioned advises that he/she ‘is ok’, that is what you record in your note of the one to one discussion. Please ensure the note is retained safely. Should a claim for compensation eventuate, this will help to establish that any subsequent absence from work was simply not foreseeable – a key limb of defence to any stress claim.

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