Health starting to fail

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It shouldn't come as any surprise that the economic environment is having a negative impact not just on those that have lost their jobs, of which there are many in the north east, but those in work are also adversely affected by worry about unemployment, anxiety about coping with less money as wages effectively fall against the cost of living and struggling to cope with increased workloads as staffing levels are reduced almost everywhere. A TUC survey published last week says this is starting to have a tangible impact on workers' health.

The top safety concerns cited this year by union safety representatives in the TUC's tenth biennial survey this year were stress, bullying and harassment, problems relating to heavy workloads and overwork, and violence and intimidation. Many of these growing concerns are down to the increasing fears of insecurity and unease being felt throughout the UK workforce as spending cuts and austerity economics hit hard and we're still not nearly half-way through the coalition government's cuts programme.

Safety reps in the TUC survey also raised concerns about the further decline in the number of safety inspections following the reductions in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) budget and subsequent refocusing on preventative, awareness raising work. Just under half (45 per cent) of the safety reps who responded to the TUC survey earlier this year said that their workplace had never had a visit from a safety inspector. One in ten of the safety reps hadn't seen a safety inspector in their workplace for more than three years, and another 16 per cent said their workplace hadn't been inspected for between one and three years.

The prevalence of workplace stress is a real concern for the longer term. It is known that if workers feel levels of anxiety on a frequent basis they are much more likely to develop cardiovascular or mental health problems at some point in their lives. Despite recent declines cardiovascular illnesses remain a major cause of death and long-term health problems in the north east, while mental illness remains one of the least understood and most common health issues in workplaces today.

As jobs are cut, so the workload of those left behind increases. As workloads rise so do the stress levels of over-worked employees, which also leads to a greater risk of bullying and harassment and workplace violence as stressed-out supervisors take out their frustrations on staff. Employers need to be aware of these increased risks and ensure they are managing them properly in a very different and difficult environment.

This is a very changed circumstance, so risk assessments need to be reviewed to reflect and take into account the current concerns of workers. It is good practice for employers to be open and communicate effectively with staff too, many do this and it does have a positive impact on workers, even where the news isn't always good. Silence or lack of information only increases anxiety.

Kevin Rowan
Regional Secretary

Northern TUC

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