EMPLOYERS must start complying with the law and take the mental health of their staff seriously if the country is to stave off a “tsunami” of problems after the pandemic, a public sector trade union has said.

A leading trade union has called for greater resources for inspectors, who are responsible for enforcing the implementation of mental health assessments and good practice in the workplace, amid a growing number of absences for stress and depression in Scotland.

Unison, which represents workers across health, education, social care, housing and other local authority departments, says that despite it being a legal requirement for workplaces to assess the impacts of jobs on employees’ mental health, it is rarely enforced and, in some cases, not being done at all.

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Officials have warned that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is not equipped to deal with enforcing the practice due to budget cuts, with the Herald on Sunday unable to find evidence of a single enforcement notice ever issued by the body for reasons relating to mental health in Scotland.

The body was unable to provide examples of any such notices when asked by this newspaper.

This is compared to the thousands of notices, or in some cases criminal prosecutions by the Crown Office, issued for physical risks with 829 notices issued by HSE between in 2019/20 alone.

The latest calls by Unison come four years after a landmark review commissioned by Theresa May looking at mental health and employers, by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer.

It gave recommendations and guidance on what employers must do to ensure the mental welfare of their staff was being protected, in the same way their physical health was.

HSE has also published guidance on how workplaces should be ensuring the mental wellbeing of their staff is protected during the pandemic and in general at work.

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Scott Donohoe, chairman of Unison Scotland’s Health and Safety Committee, said it is essential that HSE is properly resources to ensure employers are taking the mental wellbeing of their staff seriously, and abiding by the law.

He said that while mental health has been at the forefront of many employers’ minds during the pandemic, there is a risk that the focus could move elsewhere once the crisis is over, just at the time when it is crucial to ensure workers are coping.

Mr Donohoe said: “The Farmer/Stevenson review in 2017 was done and it was actually quite a good report because it looked at everything around mental health.

“Its all good on paper, but in terms of the law and enforcing psychological risk assessment to staff across public, private and third sector, it’s weak.

“If you look at the HSE enforcement figures, they rarely enforce anything for stress – there’s been around a dozen over the last 15 years.

“Even pre-pandemic we have had a lot of mental health issues, but this has been exacerbated. During the pandemic we’ve seen statistics around the rise in domestic violence, suicide in young people, and a general upward curve in terms of mental health issues which also translates into mental health problems at work.

“We are of the view that the enforcement body -HSE – need to be doing more to make sure employers are looking after employees properly to protect their mental health and psychological wellbeing.”

Mr Donohoe stressed that the nature of work after the pandemic is likely to change for many industries, with the mental health impacts of home working or hybrid working not fully understood by firms.

A Resolution Foundation report from November 2020 cites a lack of funding for bodies such as HSE before the pandemic began, stating: “Both the HSE and local authorities entered the crisis hollowed out: despite a top-up of £14.1 million in funds from the Government this May, the HSE’s total operating budget for 2020-21 is equal to £100 for each workplace for which it is responsible, compared to £224 in 2010-11. “

The latest figures from HSE show the levels of work-related stress to be rising in Scotland, reaching its highest level so far in the period between March 2017 and March 2020.

HSE measures data in three year periods,w ith 2017- 2020 showing 1870 cases of work-related stress recorded per 100,000 workers.

This compares to 1480 between 2004-2007, and is the opposite of the general trend for work-related illnesses which have fallen in the same period.

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According to the safety body, there are around 20,000 new cases of self-reported stress, depression or anxiety which has been caused or made worse by work in Scotland every year, with around 53,000 cases recorded annually - more than half of the 99,000 new cases of overall work-related illness reported every year.

Mental health difficulties have resulted in an average of 1.6million working days lost in Scotland a year.

The latest data does not include those affected by the pandemic, as it has measured only until March 2020 when the crisis began, however according Unison the impacts have been felt acutely across the public sector.

Surveys conducted earlier this year of Scottish Unison members including nurses, education professionals, home carers and social workers showed a rise in people reporting negative impacts on their mental health throughout the crisis.

The Herald: An equivalent of 516 days of general practitioner time was lost during July –September 2016 because more than 15,500 GP, nurse and healthcare assistant appointments were missed across Wiltshire’s 55 GP Practices. Photo Hugh Macknight/PA Wire.

Two thirds of nurses said in April this year that they wouldn’t recommend their profession to a friend or relative.

More than half said they considered quitting the role, and a third said they did so regularly.

More than half (55%) said they were affected by stress at work, 43% said they were exhausted and a further third said they were close to exhaustion. A total of 447 nurses responded to the union’s questions.

In a similar study of local government workers conducted in March, more than a quarter of people working across education, social work, home care and housing sectors said they had to seek medical help for their mental health during the pandemic.

Causes ranged from isolation and a rise in workload to a fear of contracting coronavirus due to a lack of PPE.

A third of social workers said they had to get medical help, with 48% reporting that their stress levels had increased substantially. Of those who had to get medical help, 33% said it was down to concerns about getting Covid due to lack of PPE; 29% said it was due to increased workload and a fifth said it was due to isolation.

Members of the union who work in education - which includes additional support needs staff, cleaners, librarians and teaching assistants - also reported similar levels of needing medical assistance.

However 60% of those who needed help from doctors said their mental health had suffered as they were afraid of contracting Covid-19,due to either a lack of PPE or other protective measures.

A third of home carers also said they needed medical help for their mental health, with 54% citing a negative impact due to a lack of PPE or fears of catching Covid, while a quarter of them said their added stress was down to their workloads.

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Martin Mckay, a mental health nurse and Unison member, said he has witnessed his own colleagues suffer but has also seen the impact on the general population as referrals to specialist services have increased.

Despite this, he saisd mental health and its causes from work have been greater understood during the pandemic, and has encouraged employers not to let it “fall by the wayside” once the crisis has ended.

He explained: "This pandemic has really made people think about their mental health, and maybe made people aware of how to spot signs in their colleagues or staff that they wouldn’t have before.

“However that isn’t always enough. The way people work after this is over is going to be very different, and employers have to make sure that the way their staff are operating is not only physically safe but it protects their mental health too.

“Whether we like it or not, human beings are social animals and working from home all the time without talkign to anybody all day every day does have an impact.

“Its also the same with hybrid working. I don’t think it is fully understood how this is going to affect people long term.”

Mr Mckay said he had witnessed the strain on his colleagues and was particularly concerned about younger nurses starting their careers during the pandemic.

He explained:”It has been a baptism of fire, literally, for them and I can see them struggling. The pandemic has affected all of us and even those who have been doing this job for decades. I worry that the younger ones will be unable to cope and they will burn out and leave the profession. We need to make sure they are looked after.”

An HSE spokeswoman said: “Our key message to employers is to make stress and mental health priorities within the organisation’s risk assessment approach.”