Absence due to mental ill-health is on the rise, report business leaders

Reviewing workloads and promoting flexible working are most popular responses to increased sickness, survey finds

Business leaders say the number of staff taking time off for mental ill-health is on the increase, according to new research.

Just under 30 per cent of businesses surveyed by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and Aviva said they had seen an increase in the number of employees affected by mental health issues in the last three years, prompting experts to suggest more needs to be done to increase both disclosure of mental health issues and support mechanisms for employees. 

Just 2 per cent of respondents said mental ill-health had decreased over the period. A third (33 per cent) said the length of absences related to mental health had also gone up.  

In May, the 2018 CIPD Wellbeing at Work survey suggested more than a fifth of organisations cited mental illness as the primary cause of long-term absence. 

Rachel Suff, CIPD employee relations advisor, said: “We are clearly facing a significant challenge around managing people’s health at work, but there has been an encouraging increase in the number of organisations raising awareness of mental health issues across the workforce, which could be contributing to increased disclosure of a mental health issue.” 

The head of communications at the Mental Health Foundation, Richard Grange, said the increase in absences could signal a gradual breaking down of the stigma surrounding mental health.

He said: “While it is concerning that there are so many people experiencing mental health problems, the fact they are able to report it to their employers is a good thing.

“Being able to talk about mental health without fear of stigma means people are able to get help more quickly. It can stop a small issue escalating into a far larger problem and also prevents long-term absences,” Grange added.

Being able to open up about depression has recently been linked to increased productivity at work. A London School of Economics (LSE) study of 15 countries, including the UK, revealed employees hiding their condition take more days off work than their openly unwell counterparts.

BCC and Ariva’s survey of 1,000 UK business leaders found many were reacting to mental health issues. More than a third (36 per cent) had begun reviewing individual workloads, while 35 per cent were considering flexible working options one in five (20 per cent) were organising counselling for staff and 18 per cent had organised training for managers to better support individuals. 

Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change, a mental health charity, said: “It’s positive to hear that more employers are creating working environments where people feel able to open up about mental health, and take time off should they need to. Increased disclosure, which often occurs as the result of a change in culture towards mental health, helps to ensure people get support sooner and can prevent longer term sickness absence.”

Richard Isham, partner at Wedland Blake LLP, said that while there was a moral case for supporting staff, doing so also made “business sense”. Taking substantive action to promote mental health in the workplace can directly affect the bottom line, he said. 

“It is necessary in order to reduce businesses’ exposure to tribunal claims and the reputational harm from adverse findings,” said Isham. “The responsibility on employers is more substantive than just enlightened self-interest.”

While businesses must evaluate the cost of increased workplace support, Isham added, inaction carried a greater cost. “Mental ill health-related absences are estimated to cost at least £26 billion per year,” he said. “So the economic cost is huge, but so too is the human cost; for the sufferers and for those around them, both at work and at home. Tragically, the ultimate human cost is the loss of life through suicide.”