With workplace stress at a 16 year high, UNISON demands a new mental health strategy to tackle the effects of austerity


Union activists argue that years of austerity have led to a widespread worsening of poor mental health

WITH work-related stress at its highest rate in 16 years, the trade union UNISON has called for a new strategy to combat mental health issues in the workplace caused by the pressures of increasing workloads and UK Government austerity cuts.

UNISON’s call is informed by the most recent statistics from the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which showed a 7 per cent rise in the proportion of people who have experienced work-related stress, depression or anxiety when compared to figures for 2015/16 – a rate of 1,610 cases per 100,000 workers.

The HSE states in its statistical report that the 7 per cent difference between the figure for 2016/17 and that for the year before is not statistically significant. Nevertheless, calculated since 2014/15, the rate of work-related stress has actually increased by 16 per cent.

The strategy UNISON will promote calls for local government employees to ensure effective workload management schemes, suitable assessments on the risks of stress, mental health action places, and policies which consult with local union branches.

READ MORE: Could trade unions have the answer to poor mental health?

Scott Donohoe, UNISON’s Scottish Regional Representative, raised the issue at the union’s national conference in Brighton this week, and attributed the increase to expanding workloads, arguing that in the face of austerity-driven cuts, staffing levels in many workplaces have been cut and morale has suffered as a result.

Donohoe commented: “The HSE figures for 2016/17 show 1.3 million workers suffered ill health at work, 526,000 cases of stress, anxiety or mental health, and 9.9 million working days lost and a cost to society of over £14 billion. A recent report from Lancaster University on the scourge of Presenteeism (attending work whilst sick). found that it costs £15.1 billion annually, so more than sickness absence.”

Rates of work-related stress as collected by the HSE have been erratic over the past 16 years. Its lowest level was in 2005-6, when the rate dropped to 1190 cases per 100,000 workers, and reached what was its highest level in 2013-14, until the most recent statistics.

Donohoe went on to highlight some of the cuts to local government in Scotland, including announcements of £133 million in cutbacks over two years which is expected to see job losses, and £160 million over four years for Edinburgh.

Donohoe continued: “The decimation of our members’ jobs across Scotland is an absolute scandal and must be resisted with all means at our disposal. Members are facing increased work demands due to cuts in the local authority workforce across the country. The demands on public services are also increasing due to the consequence of the economic crisis just as the workforce decreases.

“In addition our members often come under pressure to adopt new cost-cutting working practices under the guise of modernisation, service reform, or transformation, which have little or nothing to do with improving services to the Scottish people. Many members are coming under pressure to carry out paid and unpaid overtime.”

“Years of austerity and cuts in council budgets means cuts in staffing levels, increase in workloads, attacks on terms and conditions, constant restructures. It’s dead simple. All increase poor mental health.” Tony Slaven, UNISON South Lanarkshire branch

Donohoe pointed to Glasgow City’s NO to Overwork campaign, as well as the campaigning efforts of UNISON branches across the UK, as examples of the kind of work necessary to raise awareness of the factors adding to workplace stress.

Tony Slaven, from UNISON’s South Lanarkshire branch, seconded Donohoe’s composite on workloads and mental health, adding: “How about this for a simple message? Years of austerity and cuts in council budgets means cuts in staffing levels, increase in workloads, attacks on terms and conditions, constant restructures. It’s dead simple. All increase poor mental health. Such as anxiety, stress, and depression for our members.

“As reps, we are seeing and dealing with more grievances, absences, and capability procedures. There are local authorities that recognise the growing problem of poor mental health in the workplace only to find austerity and the cuts are relentless.”

Slaven applauded branches that have managed to negotiate and establish mental health and well-being policies in the workplace, however, he cautioned: “These policies may look good sitting unopened in the Director’s office – but that is not where they belong. They need to be working for all of us on the front line, where they must actually be applied.

“My local authority produced a document on mental health where they failed to mention workload – when challenged they said they didn’t think that this was an issue. This is what we are fighting against.”

During this year’s Mental Health Week in May, the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) called for greater attention to the structural causes of poor mental health, such as austerity and precarious employment, and argued in favour of collective solutions and greater social cohesion as a means of redressing these problems.

Picture courtesy of caio_triana