Lockdown has resulted in fewer fit notes being issued to workers, according to an analysis of official data, but a marked increase in mental health-related illnesses, which has resulted in time taken off work.
The latest data on the number of statements of fitness to work signed by GPs, published by NHS Digital, showed mental health problems now account for four in 10 (41 per cent) of all sick notes signed by GPs during the pandemic.
The research found that overall employees took less time off work during lockdown, which lasted from 23 March to 4 July in England. Analysis by NTT Data found the number of fit notes issued in April, May and June 2020 dropped by 34 per cent when compared to the 12-month average.
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Even when excluding furloughed workers – who accounted for 26.9 per cent of the workforce – the number of fit notes issued during those three months still decreased by 10 per cent.
However, while the overall number of fit notes issued with the diagnosis of ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ also decreased over that period – by 22.8 per cent compared to the 12-month average – NTT Data said this was less than would be expected considering the overall drop in fit notes.
There was also a six percentage point increase in the proportion of fit notes issued for mental health reasons. Between March and July mental health reasons accounted for 41 per cent of all issues fit notes, up from 35 per cent in the preceding 12 months.
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Vicki Chauhan, head of public services at NTT Data UK, said employee mental health and wellbeing has always been of crucial importance in the workplace, but the research showed it was more important than ever to support workers’ health as lockdown and remote working continued to impact society.
“These are extraordinary times and until we can return to a level of normality, employers must remain conscious of the challenges that remote working poses to mental health and continue to support their staff as this pandemic evolves,” Chauhan said.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said it was important for employers to put support in place as the pandemic continued to affect people's health and wellbeing in many ways.
“A key foundation is ensuring line managers have the skills to manage people properly, prioritising regular 1-2-1s with individuals, being empathetic and providing support and flexibility when required,” Willmott said. “Encouraging virtual team and social gatherings will help people to feel connected, particularly if they are on their own at home.”
He added that early access to occupational health services when required was also very important, while employee assistance programmes could provide another source of valuable expert support for staff.
Carole Spiers, chair of the International Stress Management Association UK, added that employers needed to learn from the first lockdown and offer better ways to support staff’s mental health as the UK continued remote working long term.
“Working from home is a major challenge at the moment, and employees need tips and strategies to enhance mental wellbeing while working remotely,” Spiers said. “Stress and mental health problems have never been more important than now, and the challenges they present are never more acute than in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The analysis comes as new research from healthcare provider Benenden Health found almost half (42 per cent) of UK businesses have experience of an employee leaving their company because their mental wellbeing was not cared for, with 25 per cent saying they had lost a really valuable staff member.
The research – which surveyed 1,008 employees and 1,003 business owners and directors between May and June – found more than half (55 per cent) of workers said they would seek a new job if their mental wellbeing was not being supported by their employer, increasing to 78 per cent among 18 to 24-year-olds.
Fifty-seven per cent said a supportive mental wellbeing policy would increase the likelihood of them joining a new company.
The research also highlighted a disparity between how employers’ priorities are perceived. Only a third (36 per cent) of workers believe that the mental wellbeing of employees is a big priority for their employer and that the business genuinely cares about the issue. However, six in 10 (58 per cent) employers said they genuinely cared about the mental wellbeing of their employees.