Inability to ‘switch off’ may be behind rise in sick notes, warns expert

4 Sep 2017 By Marianne Calnan

Employers urged to spot problems early on, as one in three fit notes is linked to mental ill-health

Experts are warning that employees’ inability to ‘switch off’ could be causing mental ill-health, after it was revealed that 31 per cent of fit notes issued are for mental and behavioural disorders.

Research from NHS Digital – which was published late last week and analysed 12 million fit notes written by GPs in England between December 2014 and March 2017 – also found a 14 per cent increase in the number of workers signed off sick or put on restricted duties because of stress or anxiety between 2015-16 and 2016-17, compared with a 6 per cent rise in fit notes overall.

Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD, warned that the high proportion of employees experiencing mental ill-health may be linked to the increasing availability of technology. “The line between work and home has become more blurred over recent decades; technology can support flexible working, which can support better wellbeing, but it can also encourage a 'never switching off' culture,” she said.

Charlotte Cross, director of the Better Health at Work Alliance, told People Management that organisations should take steps to tackle problems before they escalate. “Employers should ensure they have trained line managers, and ideally mental health first-aiders, to spot early signs of distress or fading resilience and signpost for help before the trigger point is reached,” she said.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, said stress and wellbeing audits may help businesses identify the key causes of work-related stress and take action accordingly.

“Organisations need to train line managers in developing better social and interpersonal skills and to recruit managers with these soft skills. They should consider resilience training for staff and managers in high-pressure parts of the organisation, as well as employee assistance programmes to help those who can’t cope,” he said.

The NHS Digital research also revealed that, of those who were issued a fit note for what the report termed ‘mental and behavioural episodes’, more than a fifth (22 per cent) of incidences lasted more than 12 weeks.

Women accounted for more than half of the total number of fit notes issued throughout the period, peaking at 59 per cent in January 2017. One fit note was issued per 48 patients aged between and 18 and 65 years on average each month.

A separate study from mental health charity Mind, published in March, found that around a quarter (26 per cent) of employees who described their mental health as poor said work was the primary cause.

Meanwhile, the TUC revealed in May that just a quarter (26.2 per cent) of people who have had a mental health problem or phobia for more than a year were in work.

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