Depression and the workplace - when working longer hours can damage your health

A new study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and the University College London has concluded that employees who work more than 11 hours a day are twice as likely to suffer from major depression as those working regular 8 hour days.  That may not be news to some HR practitioners, but it is more evidence that the culture of working long hours can have serious consequences both for the individual and for the business. 

The charity Mind estimates that 1 in 6 workers is experiencing depression, stress and anxiety and puts the cost to the UK economy at £26 billion each year.  That means that in a company with 100 employees as many as 17 could suffer from stress at some point in their careers.  In reality of course in some industries where long hours are frequently regarded as normal, the figure may be much higher than this.  More and more employers are therefore likely to have to manage employees who are suffering from stress and depression.

Some HR practitioners will be all too familiar with the fit notes which they receive from employees’ GPs which sometimes too readily sign the employee off with stress or depression.  In our experience this can mean that employers, for their part, too readily assume that an employee signed off with stress is malingering rather than that they might actually be suffering from a serious medical condition.  Failing to recognise the seriousness of depression can create real problems for the employer, and expose them to some significant legal claims.

If an employee becomes severely depressed, they are likely to go off sick.  The immediate consequence of that is likely to be decreased productivity, and the additional cost of finding temporary or permanent cover for those employees.  High levels of sickness absence and a culture of working long hours can also creating a negative atmosphere which usually results in a higher staff turnover.

Severe depression can be a ‘disability’ for the purposes of disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and workers with severe depression can therefore pursue claims for disability discrimination if they are treated unfavourably because of something arising from that disability or if an employer fails to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate an employee with severe depression, for example by making changes to their working hours or workloads. 

There is also the risk of a personal injury claim if the illness was caused by the long working hours, particularly if the employee alerted the company to the fact that he was suffering from stress and the company failed to do anything about it.  Employees can also make a claim under the employer’s Permanent Health Insurance scheme, if they qualify under the rules of the scheme, which can increase the company’s premiums.  It can take a long time for an employee to become well enough to return to work, and some may never be able to do so.

So, how should you manage an employee who complains that they are suffering from work related depression?  Some suggestions include :

  • Where an employee complains of stress, sit down with them at an early stage and try to understand exactly what has happened, and what the company can do to try to alleviate some of the pressures on the employee.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask ‘What can we do differently?’  Adopting a ‘lessons learned’ approach can help not just the employee who is suffering from depression, but other employees within his team.
  • Try to encourage employees to come forward at an early stage if they feel that they are suffering from stress, rather than waiting for them to go off sick.
  • Offer staff access to confidential counselling.  Make sure they know what the process is, and who to contact.
  • Involve occupational health specialists at an early stage, or at least when an absent employee is returning to work.
  • Train managers to recognise early signs of stress and depression so that they can try to recognise the signs in their team.
  • Encourage employees to consider flexible working arrangements, and encourage managers to consider them sensibly.  The right to work flexibly currently extends to those with children or adults who they care for, but there are proposals to expand this right to all employees who want to work flexibly (subject to certain qualifying criteria).
  • Consider a staff survey to find out what staff satisfaction is like, and be prepared to make changes.  The charity Mind has an example survey which it might be worth considering.
The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.