Occupational health (OH) departments are being warned they could find themselves at the sharp end of dealing with the emotional fall-out of the recession, as redundancies and job uncertainty take their toll on staff.
With thousands of redundancies being announced almost every day, and economists predicting the situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better, there are growing concerns that OH professionals will see a flood of employees suffering from anxiety and stress.
At the same time, there are fears that employers may cut back on their OH spending to save costs, just at the time support is most needed.
Studies of previous downturns suggest there will be an increase in GP and hospital appointments, particularly among men, and higher rates of smoking, drinking and drug use, as well as separation and divorce.
Health issues associated with increased job insecurity can include raised blood pressure, increased risk of coronary heart disease, mental health problems and even increased rates of cancer, said Whitaker.
“Employees who are afraid of losing their jobs enter a damaging ‘anticipatory’ phase where they are aware their position is under threat, but have no further knowledge,” he explained.
“During this phase, people may experience low-level anxiety, disturbed sleep and changes in behaviour, such as increased drinking and smoking,” he added. But once a redundancy decision was made, staff tended to be less affected mentally, probably because they were able to focus more on what happens next, he said.
The Royal College of Nursing, meanwhile, has urged the government to ensure health services are not swamped by the effects of rising unemployment, including increased levels of isolation, family breakdown and mental health problems. And the Employers’ Forum on Disability has said the government must not forget the needs of disabled people in its plans to help unemployed people back into work by offering employers £2,500 “golden hellos”.