The HSE Podcast

Work-related stress, mental health, and Working Minds

November 16, 2022

In this podcast, HSE Chair Sarah Newton and Professor Cary Cooper, one the world’s foremost experts on wellbeing, discuss the importance of working in partnership to prevent work-related stress and to promote good mental health.

Amongst other things, the podcast covers HSE’s Working Minds campaign, which aims to ensure psychological risks are treated the same as physical ones, that employers recognise their legal duty to prevent work related stress to support good mental health in the workplace, and that they have the tools they need to do achieve this. 

For more information on the campaign visit ‘Working Minds



Mick Ord (Host): A warm welcome to you whenever and wherever you are listening to this Health and Safety Executive podcast from me, Mick Ord, and our soon-to-be-announced guests. This podcast is the second in a series designed to help you to make your life a little easier, both in work and maybe even spilling over into your personal life, you never know.

The Health and Safety Executive is committed to improving the health and safety of workers in Great Britain. And today we'll be focusing on an issue that affects all industry sectors, work-related stress, and its potential impact on mental health. In 2020/21, more than 800,000 people suffered from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety. The impact on workers and businesses is considerable. A recent report by Deloitte estimates that the total annual cost of poor mental health to employers has increased by 25% since 2019, costing UK employers up to 56 billion pounds a year. 56 billion! Last year, on the 16th of November, HSE launched its Working Minds campaign to encourage, promote, and support good mental health in the workplace and prevent work-related stress. And today we'll talk about the successes of the campaign, what still needs to be done and why this topic is still so important. Joining us today is Sarah Newton, Chair of the Health and Safety Executive. In addition, Sarah is currently a non-executive director of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust. Prior to taking over the chair in 2020, Sarah's experience includes serving as a director for American Express Europe, Age Concern, and the independent academic think tank, the International Longevity Centre. Sarah was also an MP for ten years, and served as a minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, responsible for HSE and Health and Work Unit.

And we're delighted to also have with us Professor Cary Cooper, one of the world's foremost experts on wellbeing, and a 50th anniversary professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the Manchester Business School. He's the author or editor of over 170 books, has written more than 450 scholarly articles for academic journals, and is a frequent contributor to national newspapers, TV and radio. A big welcome, both.

Sarah. First of all, thanks for joining us for the podcast. Now, your Working Minds campaign has just celebrated its first anniversary, so tell us about why you launched a campaign in the first place and what it's achieved..

Sarah Newton: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me on to your podcast this morning, Mick. You know, let's be honest about this. Any one of us can experience stress. It can affect people in different ways and different times, so it's a very prevalent issue. So why did HSE get involved with dealing with this? Well, it's clearly our mission to prevent work-related ill health, and as you said from those startling statistics in your introduction, many people are experiencing stress in the workplace, and we know it's the number one reason why people will have an absence from work is. So we were looking at a new strategy last year.

We've developed a new strategy, which is protecting people in places and five strategic objectives. One of them clearly to reduce work-related ill health, with a particular focus on stress because it affects so many people. And we chose to launch this campaign because HSE, while we have a huge amount of expertise, we don't have all the answers. And we really wanted to work in partnership with a wide range of organisations who together, we could bring the big difference that we want to see. It's all about working in partnership, collaborating with others, making sure that employers have the knowledge, the tools that they need to really support their workers to prevent work-related stress and ill health.

Mick Ord (Host): As we've heard the figures on people taking absence from work because of work-related stress have really increased over the past couple of years. What are your thoughts about that, Sarah?

Sarah Newton: Well, I think a part of it, or probably a very large part of it, is to do with the fact as a society, we've been far more prepared to talk about mental ill health. There's been a huge amount of really positive work to de stigmatise mental ill health, which of course includes stress and anxiety and depression. And so I think as a result of that, people are more prepared to acknowledge that they're suffering from mental ill health.

Mick Ord (Host): Professor Cooper, I guess that you'd echo everything that Sarah said there about the Working Minds campaign?

Prof. Cary Cooper: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, HSE has always been at the forefront looking at stress at work. It was the only country actually, 20 years ago, set up the management standards for stress at work. I was involved in that 20 years ago. And it's gotten worse, a lot of the problems. That was really ahead of its time, but times have changed. We've had a financial crisis since then. We've had a pandemic. We have a cost of living crisis. We're about to enter a recession. This has really become even more significant and more important than ever before. And the HSE, by revising the management standards, by getting involved in this Working Minds campaign is really quite important. And by the way, it's not just the UK. Every developed country has between 50% and 60% of its long-term absence due to stress, anxiety, and depression. It's not just the UK. This is a kind of global problem, particularly in the developed world.

Mick Ord (Host): Sarah, what are the next steps for Working Minds then?

Sarah Newton: So Working Minds is a collaboration. It's a partnership of a number of organisations. We've already doubled the number of organisations we work with. We're so grateful to our partners. So some of our founding partners such as Acas, Ceca, Mind, Mates in Mind. Now we're working with different industry sectors, so working a lot with their representative bodies across a huge range of industries. And a huge benefit to us of that is to draw on their expertise, but also to reach out to their members. You know, big companies will often have HR departments, they'll have investments into all types of health and wellbeing type programs, but small and medium sized companies don't always have those resources available for their staff. So it's very important that we really reach out to every business right across the UK and provide them with some tools that really will make the difference. Most employers will understand that it's their responsibility to think about the physical risks, the physical health concerns that people can have at work, But what they don't often realise is they have an equal responsibility to the psychological wellbeing of their staff. So part of our campaign is to remind employers of those legal responsibilities. They do have a duty to do risk assessments of their employees for both physical and psychological risks to ill health, and then to provide them with the toolkits to enable them to assess the risk and then manage and mitigate the risk. And by working with so many different employers, really drawing on their experience what works in their workplaces. So an element of this is going to be peer-to-peer support. So businesses say in the agricultural sector, they come, share good experiences together on what works for them. That's a very different sector than say the NHS or working in an advanced manufacturing location.

So while the principles are the same, the applications and probably the examples of good practice will be different. And so we'll be wanting to build on the huge success of the first year, have more people become partners, more people become champions, access the materials that are there so that they can take some really practical actions in their workplaces to improve the health and wellbeing of their staff.

Mick Ord (Host): And as you've already said, it's not just big companies with HR departments, is it? It's the small, maybe a company with 20 employees or something like that.

Sarah Newton: You know how right you are. But a vast majority of people in the UK are employed in small and medium size organisations. And actually recent data will show a lot of people are employed in, you know, what might loosely be called the gig economy, or platform workers. And platform workers, may be just part of their employment. Perhaps they've got a job with an employer, but then they actually supplement that income as a platform worker, and those companies are not in day-to-day contact with their employees, with the people that they are working with to actually deliver the services through these platforms. Now they really need to think hard about how they are going to reach out to those employers and make sure that they are undertaking their risk assessments, so to prevent people having physical or mental ill health at work.

Mick Ord (Host): Cary, you wanted to come in there?

Prof. Cary Cooper: Yeah, Sarah's really hit a really important issue. A lot of the bigger companies since the financial crisis of 2008-2015, have really treated stress at work and wellbeing much more seriously, much more strategically. There are now directors of health and wellbeing in many of the big companies and public sector bodies. Indeed, the NHS have. Every hospital in the NHS has a non-executive director on its board who's responsible for employee health and wellbeing. The real issue, and I think why this campaign is a really important one is for the SME sector, small and medium sized enterprises, because they don't have big HR departments, chief medical officers, and so on. Five years ago, I founded the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work, made up of 40 global employers from Rolls Royce and BT and Microsoft, it goes on and on, BBC and so on, including the NHS Executive. Those people are treating this as a strategic issue. They have directors of health and wellbeing. They're increasingly getting somebody on the board who's responsible for health and wellbeing at work because we have to hold organisations accountable for ensuring that employee health and wellbeing, that stress and mental health is treated properly. That they are actually looking at the data on it, the metrics, which tells them that things aren't going so well, or that they do metrics to make sure that they understand what good looks like in terms of an employer in terms of mental wellbeing of their staff.

But it's the SME sector that really needs quite a lot of help. The gig economy that Sarah talked about, I think is really important. And the more we get this out and the more we get the big employers, by the way, to help their supply chain, I think that's the way we're going to get the SME sector, Sarah. I think we've got to get them down to the supply chain or where they're actually physically located, so they have a plant in a particular area and there are other SMEs in that area. You know, we have to help because the big boys have the infrastructure. They have the HR departments, occupational health, and they know and they understand what the HSE is providing and what other people are providing in this space. And that's going to be, I think, our big challenge because our productivity, aside from anything else, our productivity per capita is pretty damn poor. We're set bottom of the G 7 on productivity per capita, tied with Italy. And we're 17th in the G 20 on productivity per capita. So it's health of employees, but it's about our nation. It's about the productivity of our country. And if we create the right kind of cultures where there's wellbeing and people feel valued and trusted and can work flexibly and have good line managers, we're going to make a real difference.

Sarah Newton: Yeah. I think what I'd really, really like to pick up on that last point, Cary, it's not only the right thing to do. That companies have a legal obligation. But it's actually in their interests. The data that you get from large organisations will very clearly say for every pound they spend, they get it back 4, 5, 6 times in terms of the productivity of their staff. So there's been a lot of work done by Deloitte and others, which show the return on investment to companies that really invest, or organisations that really invest in the health and wellbeing of their staff. So I think that is a key message that we want to enable to get out. And it's often, I think, more easily received if it's company to company. People in your sector actually making that case rather than a regulator. But we want to enable that message to get across by creating the opportunities for employers to share this type of economic information as well as all the practical things that they're doing in their workplaces to really improve the health and wellbeing of their staff.

And one of the things you touched on which I couldn't agree with more is about training line managers. They are absolutely critical. I agree with you. We certainly see at HSE and our duty holders, especially as a result of the pandemic, a lot of focus in the boardroom on health and safety and wellbeing of their staff. and a genuine commitment to do the right thing. But enabling that to happen in the organisation really requires line managers to be trained and well supported. Because without that support, it can be quite a scary conversation. You know, if somebody comes to you and wants to talk to you about things that are really distressing them and causing them stress and anxiety in the work – and that could be partly related to what's happening at home, things outside the workplace., As you were talking about though, the huge financial pressures that many people are under at the moment. It's not always an easy conversation to hear if you haven't been trained on how to hear that conversation and how to respond and understand that your organisation will support you in enabling you to do your job. To either signpost that person to some more professional support, or to give you the ability to support them in the way that you and the employer want to. So it requires, you know, quite a lot of effort and support for organisations into their line managers so that they can have those conversations.

Prof. Cary Cooper: It's interesting, Mick, what happened when we formed the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing five years ago. it's made up of HR directors, chief medical officers, directors of health and wellbeing of all these major companies, public sector bodies. On our first meeting, they said the big issue for us – this is five years ago, this is pre pandemic – our big issue is people tend to get promoted to managerial roles or recruited to those roles based on their technical skills, not their people skills. Our big issue is that we don't have the cadre of managers all the way up the system and every sector where there's parity between their technical skills and their social skills. And so the EQ – the emotional intelligence of our line managers is really fundamental in creating a culture. Because listen, all of us in the workplace have a boss in our careers. That boss values you, listens to you, enables you to work flexibly if that's what you want. Understands what's going on in your personal life as well, because that impacts your work and treats you like a human being. Then that's going to create an atmosphere and create a culture where wellbeing will thrive and stress will not thrive. And so I think our challenge here, and by the way, the big companies and big public sector bodies know this. We've got to get the message across to the SME sector, to the gig economy, to the third sector, and that's why Working Minds means a lot to me because those are the organisations that we really have to get, you know, get on board on this and for them to totally understand. Because to be honest with you, they employ more people than the private sector. The SMEs employ more people than the big boys do.

Mick Ord (Host): Have you got some examples of the kind of impact work-related stress has on workers and the actual impact it's had on their lives? Just give us a real life example if you could.

Prof. Cary Cooper: Oh, there's so many examples. I'll tell you what is a big example. I hate to make this kind of contemporary, but I'm going to do it anyway – bullying at work has always been a big issue. Where we have toxic managers who bully people – command and control types. That's very damaging. I did a big study many years ago with the CBI, the TUC, there was 80 organisations in all. We looked at nearly a million workers, and in depth five and a half thousand. Almost every sector was involved in this, because we were trying to identify what the impact of bullying was, what the extent of it was, and we found that really at any moment in time, 10% of people are being bullied at work. By bullying at work, it means persistent devaluing of people. It's not physical bullying, it's psychological bullying. And the impact is that, the mental health impact is profound. And we are looking at all– by the way, they're in every sector from the NHS ,to universities, to IT companies, you name it. It's not just in what you think is the really fast moving high octane businesses, It's everywhere. And therefore that goes back again to an issue that we really have to tackle. By the way, companies now do have policies on bullying at work. Which they didn't have, and that followed the kind of studies we do, but people are affected by the workplace a lot. We can do things about that, and that's the important thing. When we're recruiting people for jobs now, particularly managerial roles, we have to ensure there's parity between their people skills and their technical skills. That will help not just bullying, but just bad management, frankly. And that will help create a culture because bosses do create cultures.

Mick Ord (Host): And in terms of the way in which workplace culture has changed over the years, Sarah, are we in a better place now than we may have been 20 years ago? Or do you think there's still a huge amount of work to be done, particularly in relation to what Cary was talking about there?

Sarah Newton: Oh goodness. What a question That is Mick, that's quite a long perspective, 20 years, isn't it? And all workplaces. I would say since my time at HSE over the last couple of years and really reflecting on the COVID pandemic experience, listening to people at HSE who have been inspectors and with the organisation for say, 20, 30 years. What they told me was it was a really positive response of all the different businesses that we've been in touch with and supported over the pandemic. They really did want to do the right thing for their employers. You know, big, small, all the different sizes of business. We were supporting all sorts of business at which we don't normally regulate to enable them to carry on providing the essential goods and services that we all needed during the pandemic to enable their staff to go to work as safely as they possibly could. And what they told me was, They really felt that employers were trying to do the right thing. There was a high degree of engagement, and we really found when we were doing spot checks, you know, high degrees of compliance with the advice that was put out for employers. And I think as Cary and others have reflected the.

Because of the pandemic. There's just a heightened sense amongst the leaders of small companies, medium companies in the boardrooms of the big companies about the importance of the health and wellbeing of their employees. It's just the right thing to do. It makes good business sense, and what I want to do is use that as a springboard to really make further progress. Because while that may be the case that there is a greater awareness. Certainly looking at the data, the amount of people who are reporting that they are being ill at work, stress at work is causing them to be ill and they're having to take a day off work, those numbers are all going in the wrong direction. And you know, it's a very significant problem. So I do believe that it's the culture of an organisation that is the most important thing to change. It is about leadership. Whether, you know, you are the boss of 10 people, 20 people, or 20,000 people. You as the boss set the tone, you set the priorities for your organisation. And I know that part of our campaign is very much about that culture change and enabling leaders at all levels of organisations to have the tools, to have the information, to be able to develop that culture change. And just so I get a quick plug in here, Mick, I mean, there's a newsletter, there is a campaign microsite, people can join up, become champions, sign up to the newsletters. They will be given free information about what they can do. And as the campaign grows, as really it's going to be a movement that develops, there'll be sharing of good examples, sharing of good practice. So it's going to be an ongoing set of information and tools that people could use to help them to, you know, create better workplaces across the country.

Mick Ord (Host): It really is an active contribution towards that, isn't it?

Sarah Newton: Yeah.

Mick Ord (Host): Cary, what specifically are the signs and symptoms that employees should be looking for in their


Prof. Cary Cooper: Okay, well, there's a word called pressure, and there's a word called stress. So pressure by the way, for most of us, is stimulating and motivating, but when pressure exceeds our ability to cope, then that's stress. And the dividing line, normally, when you know you're getting close to going from the pressure zone into the stress zone, is usually behaviour change. So if you're a line manager and you observe your employee who normally has a good sense of humour, is really active, participates in team meetings actively. And all of a sudden they're more withdrawn, more angry, more negative and that's not the way they normally were, that's the first sign. So behaviour change is the first sign that you've gone from the pressure zone into the stress zone. Then you start getting the symptoms, the physical symptoms of it: lack of sleep, constant headaches, health changes as well. You start drinking more, smoking more. A whole range of issues. And those signs are really important to observe. But if you can get it early, it's like anything in the health arena, isn't it? The earlier you can identify the behavioural change in a human being. So if I'm walking down at Manchester Business School and somebody says to me "Cary, you haven't been yourself the last several months, is something wrong?" that should be an indication to me that something is wrong. That my behaviour's being perceived by other people as having changed quite dramatically. And that's because I'm now under stress, not under just the normal everyday positivities of pressure. Because pressure is kind of stimulating. You know, we all like a bit of that in our job. And you really have to then identify what the issue is that's driving that. And again, if you have a good boss who listens to you or a good work colleague who listens to you, or you don't necessarily need an EAP – an employee assistance program, counseling services. Many, almost all businesses have them, I think they're great. They do work. I did an evaluation for the HSE incidentally many, many years ago. Of all the EAPs in the UK, HSE has been part of my life, it looks like! My career life for so many years! But I did, I was commissioned to do a study of all the EAPs many years ago to look at them. How effective are they? And they are very effective. But the important thing is they help the individual, but they don't change the organisation culture. And that's why this kind of a campaign the HSE are doing and have always been involved in from 20 years ago with our management standards, is let's change the culture. Let's do prevention. EAP helps the individual cope with the problem they already have. And that's fine. And we need that. That's a part of the arsenal, the mental health arsenal that we need to have. But it would be really nice if we can start preventing some of this in the first place so we didn't have to do remedial work and treatment like EAPs and other things.

Sarah Newton: Well I couldn't agree more. And the campaign is all about prevention by raising awareness amongst employers. And we do have, as part of the toolkit, a stress assessment tool that organisations can use because I absolutely agree with Cary. It's about identifying in your organisation, whatever the size of it, what is causing the stress in the workplace? You know, as Cary says, you can be really quite exciting to be in an environment where you feel that pressure to get things done, and lots of people like challenging environments. but when it tips over into causing stress in the workplace, the toolkit is there to help organisations identify where it's happening and what is driving it so they can look more systemically at what they can do differently. I mean, there are some really simple recent examples which have got quite a lot of media attention around saying to staff We don't want you to be looking at your emails, for example, beyond a certain time. I mean, not everyone can do this, but there's quite a lot of blurring of the lines between work and home going on in the workplace today. And so that in itself can cause stress because people aren't certain what their bosses are expecting of them to their working hours. And so some simple measures like that, being very clear that we really value you, we really appreciate you. We want you to have a separation between your work life and your home life and so we don't want you to be switching on your computer, your laptop, or looking at your emails beyond this time.. And then manager's not responding in saying, Look, I noticed you've sent this at a certain hour. That's not my expectation. I'm really happy to respond to this tomorrow. Let's talk about this tomorrow. So simple things like that can make a big difference, but you'll only know if this is an issue or not in your organisation if you undertake the toolkit. If you use the toolkit, you assess whether that's stressful or not, and then reach out. Have those conversations, put things in place, check in. Are they working? Are they having the desired effect?

I think Sarah's raised a really interesting point. When my national forum was formed five years ago, the first issue was the line manager. Guess what the second issue was, Sarah? It was email usage. And now we have the Right to Disconnect law in France, Portugal, New Zealand. We have a number of countries doing that. Incidentally, a company was fined 60,000 euros for breaking it. So they actually use it. That means no manager can send an email out of office hours to their subordinates. That means at night, at weekends, or while they're on holiday. I do have a problem with that law in a way, because if we're to work flexibly, how the hell do we work? If you're picking your kids up at 3:30 and want to be with them, read with them, spend time with them, but then at night start to work, and like Volkswagen, you close down the server at 5:30 to try to stop people doing it or you say you can't do your emails at night, we have a problem. But we do need guidelines on the use of emails because it is interfering with people's lives. It's a whole field by the way, and tons of research on it now, called Technostress. You know, things like don't CC in everybody, don't send an email to anybody at on a Friday afternoon. Even if you say as a line manager, I've heard managers say to me, "I send an email, but I tell them not to respond until Monday morning. Well, why send it in the first place? Because they're going to worry about it all weekend. So we really do need simple things like Sarah said. So my national forum came up with a four page document. This is good practice. This is what you don't do to protect people's private lives. Yes. If the company's burning down, there's something going on that's really significant, yes out of office hours, fine. But try not to interfere with people's private life. They need time, They need respite away from the pressures of life because we have a lot of 'em honest. So that's a part of the puzzle. that's a part of the wellbeing puzzle. The line manager. Emails. The culture. Flexible working. All of that creates a strategic response to try to prevent people getting ill and being overloaded.

Mick Ord (Host): So finally, Sarah, for people listening, whatever the size of their company, what do you think that they should be doing now to address the issues that we've been talking about today?

Sarah Newton: First of all, I would really encourage them to become a champion. So we've got a really good website, which is . They'll find loads of free information there. They can sign up to be a champion, and then on an ongoing basis, will get free really useful information. And then start today. Just think about how you can use those five R's in your workplace to reach out to a colleague. to recognise, to listen to their concerns. To respond. Then to reflect on how's that worked, what difference is it making? And then just make it routine. Check in with your colleagues to see how things are going for them. So those simple five R's are things that any one of us can do each day in our workplace.

Mick Ord (Host): So Sarah Newton, Chair of the Health and Safety Executive and professor Cary Cooper, thanks a lot for joining us today.

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