Stress and other mental health illnesses cause almost twice as many to take sick leave than Covid and flu combined. (Picture: Ciphr Connect)

Work makes you sick. From being a super-spreader of bugs and viruses to the stress epidemic sweeping Britain, our workplaces and jobs are at the centre of it all.

News stories last week suggested the Tories had finally woken up to the scale of the problem. The government announced it was considering a new plan for a yearly health check-up for employees.

The new scheme could involve giving employers a subsidy to buy in occupational health (OH) services, which would in turn help keep us all healthy, said the reports. But far from an act of concern, the reasoning behind the plan is sinister.

Bosses increasingly worry that workers are taking too much time off sick, and are staying off for longer. Rather than look at themselves for reasons as to why that might be, they now want help to weed out potential “malingerers” while retaining staff.

The Tories have bigger concerns. There are about 600,000 more “economically inactive” people of working age than before the pandemic.

The government wants to find new ways to stop workers from leaving their jobs as they get older, or if they become unwell. And they want to bring back some of those who have left and are now claiming disability benefits.

Its plans are designed to stop people taking long periods of sick leave, because they see that as the first step out of the workforce. But for this ruse to work, it must have the appearance of neutrality.

Step forward OH. Most large employers buy OH services on renewable contracts. That means bosses set their terms and unions rarely have a say. 

Stress is a major contributor to mental distress, including depression and anxiety.  Together, they are the most consistently reported reason for sickness absence.

In Europe’s biggest employer, the NHS, almost a quarter of all sickness absence is due to psychiatric illnesses—almost double that of flu and Covid combined.

It’s not difficult to see why. The pressure of too few staff, seriously ill patients not getting the care they need—and being unable to survive financially—is making health workers sick.

Mental health awareness campaigns have helped people to acknowledge when they are unwell. And some rightly encourage people to try and regain some control of their lives by going off sick when necessary.

You might expect that health bosses would have a lot of sympathy for those with stress-related illness. Instead, many health staff report that workers on long term sick leave are referred to OH as part of plans to dismiss them on the grounds of “capability”.

“The NHS sickness policy has for years been used as a way for managers to get rid of staff that are damaged by their jobs,” says Karen, a nurse in the north of England. The threat of disciplinaries has pushed many NHS staff to start working for agencies instead, she adds.

“People working in agencies say it’s the only way they can carry on,” she says. “They can control the amount of time off they need by essentially taking unpaid leave—without a manager on their back. That means whatever money they gain by transferring to agency work is used to subsidise their sick leave.”

As NHS staffing and morale problems worsen, stress is driving more people out of work. “I went to a mental health team meeting six months ago where every single one of 16 staff said they were using antidepressants,” says Karen. “Six months later I went back and ten of them had left their jobs.”

The Tory plan for expanding OH has little to do with looking after those in need of help, time off and changes to the way they work. Instead, it’s just another stick to beat us with.

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