Rising numbers of people are being admitted to hospital with stress caused by the recession, official figures show. After Olympic cheer provided a brief respite, the statistics reveal the severity of mental problems suffered by Britons at a time of widespread job insecurity.
Almost 6,400 people were hospitalised with stress in the 12 months to May, a seven per cent rise on the previous year and 47 per cent up on 2007-8 when the economic crisis hit, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HCIS),
Those of working age were most vulnerable, with the highest rate of hospital admissions. Overall hospital admissions were up two per cent last year, indicating that admissions for stress, though low, are rising three times as fast.
Stress is the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK, affecting one in five of the working population and racking up 105 million days lost each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.
A survey of young people in their 30s by the Institute of Psychiatry found the most stressful jobs were head chefs in big restaurants and construction workers under pressure to complete a building on time. Working to deadlines where failure is publicly visible, in extremes of heat or cold and without encouragement or support were the most stressful work environments.
The HCIS figures do not include the millions who visit GPs, A&E departments or alternative practitioners for stress which are also thought to be increasing.
Experts blamed the recession for the rising toll but expressed surprise at the rate of hospitalisation. Stress is normally a trigger for illness, not an illness in itself.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University and an expert on stress, said: "I have never seen figures like this before. Stress is a trigger mechanism for a whole range of conditions, from heart attacks to immune system disorders, mental illness and depression and anxiety.
"There will be a heck of a lot more than 6,000 admissions a year for stress when you take account of all the conditions triggered by stress.
"But the figures do not surprise me. There is a lot of job insecurity out there. It is not just people losing their jobs – there is also the fear of losing their jobs. Those who remain are fewer, with more work to do and more pressure, and they are managed by people who are overloaded and also fear for their jobs. On many scales stress now passes musculo-skeletal problems such as back ache as a cause of working days lost. People see other jobs going and they fear they are next."
Tim Kendall, a Sheffield psychiatrist and deputy director of the Royal College of Psychiatrists research unit, said: "There has been an increase in the number of people who have fallen on hard times. I work in a unit for the homeless and I see a lot of people who two years ago were in a home with a family and now it has fallen apart."
Admissions for stress are usually short, providing a refuge from the stressful situation, with supportive therapy to get them back on their feet, he said. "They may need a bit of time to sort things out and practical brief therapy. Treatment would be by talking, not medication, with a fairly light touch."