Tuesday 25 February 2014

Britain's increasingly stressed-out workforce

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just released its latest figures for sickness absence in the UK labour market, covering the period from 1993 up to and including 2013   

The good news is that the overall incidence of sickness absence from work continues to fall. The number of working days lost to sickness (which fell from 134 million to 131 million between 2012 and 2013) has, apart from a slight upward blip in 2012, been on a clear downward trend for more than a decade. The number is now much lower than the 178 million recorded in 1993 despite a much higher number of people in work. As a result the sickness absence rate – the percentage of working hours lost to sickness – has fallen even more rapidly, for men down from 2.7% in 1993 to 1.6% in 2013 and for women down from 3.8% to 2.6%. Similarly, during that period the number of working days lost per worker has fallen from 7.2 days to 4.4 days.  

However, while this downward trend is evident for the two main causes of sickness absence (minor illness and musculoskeletal problems) more working days are now being lost to the common mental health problems of stress, depression and anxiety, which reached 15.2 million days lost in 2013, up from 11.8 million in 2010. Given the possibility that people may cite other reasons for absence due to mental health issues because of the social stigma attached to such conditions the underlying problem is likely to be even worse. Moreover, sickness absence statistics don’t detect people suffering from common mental health problems who soldier on at work for fear that highlighting a condition might put their job at risk.

While common mental health problems still account for only 8% of total sickness absence this disturbing upward trend indicates that the UK workforce is becoming increasingly stressed out, with pressure from bosses to get the job done ever more intense at a time when falling real wages mean most workers are struggling to make ends meet. Critics are wrong to dismiss such absence as merely symptomatic of a ‘sickie culture’ and should instead direct their attention to the excessively controlling management practices and insecure labour market conditions, such as the rising incidence of zero hours contracts, that are causing increasing numbers of workers to crack under the strain.

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