Mental health needs of workforce have ‘never been greater’ and are still soaring, new study finds

With employers reporting greater concerns, many are reviewing their wellbeing provision to ensure good processes and benefits exist

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The mental health needs of the workforce are expected to continue rising, with the majority of large employers saying their concerns are steadily increasing, a new study has shown.

The Business Group on Health’s 2024 Large Employer Health Care Strategy survey of 152 US-based large employers found that 77 per cent of these employers are reporting an increase in employee mental health needs, with 16 per cent expecting this to rise in the future.

It comes against a backdrop of ongoing sickness issues in the UK – according to ONS figures, over 2.5 million people are currently economically inactive due to long-term absence.

With these studies and a 2022 Deloitte report showing that mental ill health costs businesses £56bn annually, Alicia Nagar, head of people, wellbeing and equity at Mental Health First Aid England, said employers need to invest in this area.

“Employers should listen to what their people need and their concerns and ensure that any wellbeing strategy reflects the requirements of their people… as for business leaders, the need to support everyone’s mental health – graduates, non-graduates, apprentices and experienced workers alike – has never been greater,” she said.

Additionally, as NHS waiting lists are consistently long, Simon Miller, director at Headspace, said employees are increasingly minded to look for mental health support from their employer.

“Both physical and mental health support systems need to be on offer from businesses…we know that mental health issues can also lead to physical issues so making sure support is offered from all angles is crucial,” he added.

The Business Group on Health’s survey also found the popularity of virtual health and wellbeing provision appears to be on the decline: in 2021, 85 per cent of employers said virtual health would impact overall delivery, compared to 64 per cent in 2023.

Even if employers are not spending on the external provision, Laura Tracey, employment partner at Freeths, said having good health and wellbeing processes – including return-to-work meetings, managerial check-ins, personalisation of work and understanding of conditions or disabilities – is crucial to driving good outcomes for employers and employees.

“A combination of an open, supportive environment in which employees can raise concerns about health issues and effective processes to manage absence when it occurs, should help employers to minimise absence levels, retain employees and reduce legal risk,” she said.

Previous People Management reporting found that England-based employers may face a decline in overall employee health, as The Health Foundation’s analysis predicted more than 9.1 million people will suffer “major illnesses” by 2040. 

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, said at the time that employers must prioritise the prevention and control of sickness absence in their organisational planning because “it’s that important”, adding that it can be the deciding factor in how successful an organisation is.

“There will be a need [for HR] to think about the flexibility of resources to help fill gaps and to look at an increased utilisation of temporary workers. There should be an increased focus on health promotion now and looking into benefits such as 24/7 GPs and health cash plans,” he said.