Public sector stress absence soars, says BBC

BBC research has highlighted soaring levels of stress-related sickness among public sector workers.

It reported on 18 August that the number of sick days lost through stress-related sickness rose by 70 per cent among workers in the east and south of England, in counties including Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Thames Valley.

The figure was based on BBC analysis of more than 100 Freedom of Information Act responses from police forces, councils, NHS bodies and fire and ambulance services, relating to stress-related absences in 2013 compared with those in 2009.

Significant increases were seen in Northamptonshire (143 per cent), Essex (128 per cent) and Bedfordshire (108 per cent) but the picture varied among individual organisations. Norfolkand Suffolk Police both saw substantial falls in stress-related sickness absence, of 60 per cent and 49 per cent respectively.

Paul Marshall,Suffolk’s Deputy Chief Constable, said the force aimed to visit staff at home early on in their absence and carried out a return to work interview when they came back.

He said: “After a certain number of absences they will have an attendance support meeting, where a member of our human resource team together with the line manager sits down and talks through with that individual what’s causing the stress and how we might assist them”.

Elsewhere, East Midlands Ambulance Service – which covers Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire – saw a 257 per cent rise and East of England Ambulance, covering Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, an increase of 213 per cent.

Suffolk Fire Service saw the number of days rise by 696 per cent, from just 57 days lost in 2009 to 454 in 2013. Norfolk Fire Service reported an increase of 412 per cent.

Mark Sanderson, Suffolk’s deputy chief fire officer, said: “We believe the rise in the number of days’ illness in this area relates to our improved monitoring arrangements and better reporting but we have also worked to try and reduce the perceived ‘stigma’ associated with reporting stress, which can be related to a combination of work and home issues”.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” and employers have duties under health and safety law to assess and take measures to control risks from work-related stress.

Employers also have a duty under common law to take reasonable care to ensure the health and safety of workers. So, if a worker suffers from stress-related ill health and a court decides that the employer should have been able to prevent it, they could be found to have been negligent and be required to pay compensation.

Palmers can provide expert advice to employers on actions they need to take to safeguard their employees from stress, including putting in place legally compliant procedures and policies for managing absence through stress or other conditions. For more information, please visit our website or contact Lara Murray.