Workers with depression or anxiety lose a quarter of the year in productivity – how can HR support them?

Exclusive data shared with People Management shows the true impact of mental ill-health on employees and businesses

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Employees who have been diagnosed with depression lose 58 working days of productivity each year, according to TELUS Health’s new Mental Health Index (MHI) report.

This amounts to a quarter (24 per cent) of the working year, defined by the report as an average of 240 days.

Workers diagnosed with anxiety were similarly affected, losing 57 working days. 

Of the total UK workforce, 11 per cent have been diagnosed with depression, while anxiety is the most prevalent mental illness, affecting 15 per cent of employees, the survey of 2,000 employees found.

Andy Bell, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, told People Management: “A mentally healthy workplace is also likely to be a productive workplace. Mental health problems are common and they can affect people’s working lives significantly.

“If people don’t feel safe to disclose distress, or their distress is a result of their working conditions, they’re less likely to get help or adjustments to their work to help them to recover. This means they suffer for longer and struggle to be as productive as before.”

Rebecca Holt, clinical psychologist and co-founder and director of Working Mindset, agreed that mental health and productivity were “closely linked”. 

“Mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety can severely impact someone’s level of motivation, focus, capacity to concentrate and capacity to interact with others, all of which will affect productivity,” she said.

“Workplace environment and culture are major contributors to poor mental health.” 

Holt explained that high workloads and unclear job roles, lack of autonomy or lack of support or psychological safety in the workplace can all have a “significant” negative impact on workers' mental health. 

The report also revealed that a quarter (26 per cent) of workers would value better mental wellbeing support from their employer ahead of a 10 per cent pay rise. 

Workers under 40 in particular were found to be three-and-a-half times more likely than employees over 50 to have used work health benefits to access psychological services. They were also more impacted by mental illness, being more than twice as likely to report being affected by depression. 

Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice president of research and total wellbeing at Telus Health, told People Management: “Job retention is increasingly important in today’s uncertain economic climate and it is very telling that workers are placing equal, if not greater, importance on better wellbeing support compared to job promotions or career opportunities.

“This highlights an opportunity for employers to meet employees’ needs by providing resources and real-time support that go beyond financial considerations and job promotions to maintain morale and ultimately retain top talent.”

Sarah McIntosh, director of delivery at Mental Health First Aid England, said: “Negative workplace cultures and poor job design can be a contributing factor to depression and anxiety. For individuals to thrive people must feel their job has a purpose, that their workload is manageable and that they have the tools and relationships to succeed.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to workplace mental health and wellbeing. Creating cultures where people can talk freely about mental health and get support when they need it is vital.”

Allen agreed, saying organisations needed to ensure employees could “achieve an optimum point on their own personal health scale”. 

“This means having accessible mental health support and services in place, communicating these services and providing education to address stigma,” she said. “While managers are not expected to be mental health counsellors, they do play a role in fostering a psychologically safe workplace and providing support when needed.”

The report found there has been almost no improvement in the overall mental wellbeing of workers in the UK since TELUS's last calculation of the MHI in April 2023.

The figure is based on the scoring of survey responses, with a higher number meaning better mental health and less mental health risk. It stood at 64.2 points in October 2023, the latest period reported, rising by 0.1 point compared to April this year. There was a significant drop earlier in the year, from 65.6 in January, compared to 64.1 in April.

Managers were found to be less likely to struggle with poor mental health, as they scored higher on the MHI than non-managers, with 64.7 points compared to 63.9. Women were also found to score lower than men, with 61.4 points, in contrast to 66.5.