We know that rural work can be dangerous, the UK agriculture, forestry and fishing sector has a higher rate of work-related deaths and serious injury than any other in the UK. As a society, we also know that poor mental health can have catastrophic consequences for peoples' lives.

When we think of health & safety, we tend to think of physical risks and injury, rather than threats to mental health. It can be difficult to imagine how to incorporate mental health into the familiar structure of health & safety management. But this is a challenge which cannot be ignored.

Maintaining good mental health can be a big challenge for those working in the rural sector. In February 2022, the Farm Safety Foundation published a study which found that almost all (92%) of farmers believed that poor mental health was the biggest struggle they face.

The scale of the issue can be demonstrated by figures produced by the Office of National Statistics and National Records of Scotland for 2019/2020. In that year there were 133 suicides registered for those working in farming and agricultural related trades. That compares to 20 workers who lost their lives in fatal work-related accidents.

Loneliness and isolation are significant factors. Lone working has long been recognised as posing real risks to workers' physical safety and much has been done to combat those. Less recognised perhaps are the quiet impacts that working alone can have one someone's wellbeing and sense of self. The situation is of course compounded by the fact that it is so much more difficult to spot that someone is struggling when they are out of sight and alone.

Employers owe their employees an overarching duty to ensure health safety and welfare. This includes employees' mental health, and a failure to protect employees from harm in this regard could be classed as a breach which results in prosecution or an action for damages.

Many employers do now recognise the importance of mental wellbeing, and indeed failing to safeguard employees from this harm can be costly – poor mental health was the top reason for time off work in 2021; absence for mental health related conditions was also more lengthy than for physical issues, and more likely to lead to an employee ultimately leaving the employment. The difficulty for many employers is in knowing how to assess and manage these risks, it can feel too unfamiliar and ultimately overwhelming.

HSE recognises both the importance of managing risks to workers' mental health and the need to help employers to navigate unfamiliar territory. It launched its 'Working Minds' campaign at the end of 2021. It is specifically targeted at the six million UK workers who work in small business, and provides guidance in simple steps.

At the heart of the Working Minds campaign is a call for a culture change, for employers to see risks to mental health as equivalent to physical risks and to manage them in the same way. In practice this means thinking about the mental health impacts of tasks, working patterns and working environments in the same risk assessment and at the same time as, for example, risks of slipping and tripping or falling from height. It also means that where there are steps which would reduce impacts on mental health, these may need to be taken, notwithstanding their cost or impact on operations. It signals a move towards weaving care for mental health into the fabric of operations, rather than viewing it as something which is added on, as an extra or a benefit. But these steps need not always be onerous, for lone workers it might be as simple as setting up clear and open lines of communication or ensuring regular check-ins with workers.

The culture change needs to be wider than that though. We need to talk about this issue. Where people are working alone, it's even more important that they feel able to recognise when they need help and feel confident and comfortable doing so. Despite the huge toll it takes on the way we live and work, the stigma surrounding mental health persists but there are signs that this is changing. When the Farm Safety Foundation surveyed young farmers in 2021, 89% of thought that talking about mental health would remove the stigma attached to poor mental health and the charity launched its Mind Your Head Campaign the same year to encourage people to seek help and to talk about the struggles they face.

Although this might not be easy, the key message is that it is a problem that can be successfully addressed.. People are increasingly willing to be both more open and also more understanding about mental health. HSE's advice is practical and manageable and should pave the way to safer work for anyone lone working in rural areas, as well as for others.

This article first appeared in the Press and Journal.


Kate Donachie

Legal Director