Three days before the first UK COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 my wife and I were sitting in a hotel room in Cape Town desperately trying to find a rescue flight back to the UK.
This made for a stressful few days, though many endured worse during the pandemic.
On the same day, my colleagues in the UK were finishing the fieldwork for a survey of 1,900 Midlands employers on their experiences of mental health and wellbeing.
The timing of this survey was fortuitous, as it provides a robust pre-pandemic benchmark against which to judge the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health in the workplace.
With the support of the University and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) we were able to repeat the survey in 2021 and 2022. This data provides a dynamic picture of how workplace mental health and wellbeing has changed over the last couple of years, as well as how employers have tried to cope with the challenges.
This matters because of the personal and social costs of poor mental health and wellbeing, but also because of its economic cost.
Pre-pandemic, the productivity costs of poor mental health alone to UK employers were between £42bn and £45bn, according to estimates from Deloitte.
This includes the cost of mental health-related absence, at around £7bn, as well as presenteeism (when employees are at work but underperforming due to ill-health) at around £28bn, and the cost of employees leaving work at around £9bn.
A recent update suggests this productivity cost may now be as high as £56bn and says that ‘28% of employees have either left in 2021 or are planning to leave their jobs in 2022, with 61% citing poor mental health as the reason they are leaving’.
Another study estimated the wider personal and social costs of poor mental health in the UK pre-COVID - intangible human costs and quality of life impacts, costs of health and service care costs - at around £117.9bn, approximately 5% of UK GDP in 2019 (McDaid et al. 2022).
The COVID-19 pandemic of course has since brought about many changes to the economy and society, including in the workplace, and is associated with a sustained increase in mental health issues.
How have employers coped with COVID?
Pre-pandemic, employee mental health and wellbeing was often a low priority. In 2020, 50 per cent of Midlands firms offered some support for employee mental health and wellbeing and 42.5 per cent had a senior level mental health lead.
However, only 27.2 percent of firms had a mental health plan and 25 per cent had a specific budget for mental health support.
In the same year, 30 per cent of Midlands firms reported some mental health absence. Of this 37 per cent was either long-term or involved repeated periods of absence.
Crucially, among those employers which experienced some mental health absence, 55 per cent reported that this had impacted on either growth, productivity or customer service.
Lockdowns and working from home through 2020 and 2021 created significant disruption and changed working patterns for many of us.
Press reports at the time reflected the mixed benefits of home-working and the related pressures such as home schooling: many people traded savings in commuting time with a lack of social contact at work.
For employers concerned with the mental health and wellbeing of their employees, lockdowns and home working created a range of issues. Emerging mental health and wellbeing issues became more difficult to identify and made responding to any issues more difficult than with traditional face-to-face working patterns.
Detailed interviews with employers during 2021 reflected these concerns. Employers – even in smaller firms – often felt more distant from their employees and stressed the complexity of dealing with any emerging mental health issues in the context of the pandemic.
Other responses varied. The proportion of Midlands firms having a senior mental health lead fell slightly in 2021 to 36 per cent, while the proportion of firms providing mental health training for line managers increased marginally to 48 per cent.
Despite all the challenges, reported levels of presenteeism fell sharply to 17 per cent. The recorded level of mental health absence also fell to 25 per cent of employers in 2021.
Both may reflect a combination of disruption to working patterns as well as the underlying wellbeing of firms’ workforces.
We also have some evidence that government support measures for firms during the pandemic (such as the furlough and COVID loan schemes) may have helped to support good employee mental health and wellbeing. Extra financial support during this period may have helped firms to continue or develop their support for employees.
What is mental health in the workplace like post-pandemic?
Our newest survey was completed in May 2022, providing fresh insight into the views of Midlands employers on employee mental health and wellbeing.
This suggests that for many firms the much talked about ‘new normal’ looks very much like the old normal: 62 per cent of employers who had adopted remote working practices during the pandemic said they were now back to their previous employment patterns.
Where some staff are still working remotely - which is the case in 38 per cent of those firms who adopted remote working practices during the pandemic – more than half of their employers have instituted hybrid working models.
With the return to the workplace, reported levels of presenteeism (21 per cent) and mental health absence (27 per cent of employers) have again increased.
Perhaps more worrying, the reported incidence of long-term and repeated mental health absence are now back to pre-pandemic levels, despite some likely under-reporting due to the continuation of hybrid and remote working patterns.
And, there are very mixed signals about whether Midlands employers are now taking mental health more seriously.
On the positive side, the proportion of firms with a senior mental health lead has increased (44 per cent), as has the proportion of firms providing mental health training for line managers (54 per cent).
Less positive is a sharp fall in the proportion of employers who have a budget for supporting good mental health, now only 16 per cent.
The future of mental health in the workplace
Workplaces represent a potentially valuable context in which to implement mental health and wellbeing support. And as the figures suggest, the social and economics costs of poor mental health and wellbeing are huge.
In our study around 50 per cent of Midlands employers are offering employees some support to maintain good mental health and wellbeing. In the US, where the financial incentives for employers are very different, this figure is around 90 per cent.
Our research study has been critical to understanding how the pandemic affected mental health and wellbeing in Midlands firms and how this is impacting business outcomes.
Recent funding will allow us to extend the work to employers in Ireland and Sweden, explore the role (and benefits) of line manager training in more detail, and establish the business benefits of mental health and wellbeing support measures.
Study results will inform the future development of mental health and wellbeing support for Midlands’ employers through the Midlands-wide Mental Health and Productivity Project (MHPP) and other partner organisations.
Oh, and to end my tale, we got the last two seats on the last British Airways flight from Johannesburg before all flights were stopped. That story, at least, has a happy ending.
Research with impact
Professor Stephen Roper is Professor of Enterprise at WB and Director of the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC).
His research with the ERC has shaped business policy initiatives, guided the UK Government’s allocation of innovation funding and improved understanding of what drives performance and productivity in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
That work formed the basis of an impact case WBS submitted for the Research and Excellence Framework, the results of which saw WBS ranked fifth in the country for its research by the Times Higher Education.
He teaches International Perspectives on Enterprise and Innovation and Alternative Energy Technologies on the undergraduate programme at WBS.
Wishart, M. (2020) 'Workplace mental health and Covid-19: experiences of firms in the Midlands' ,https://www.enterpriseresearch.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ERC-ResReport-Workplace-mental-health-and-Covid-19-experiences-of-firms-in-the-Midlands.pdf., Enterprise Research Centre
Wishart, M., Roper, S., Bourke, J., Belt, V. (2021) 'Workplace mental health in midlands firms 2021': Baseline report", https://www.enterpriseresearch.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ERC-Report-Workplace-Mental-Health-in-Midlands-Firms-2021.pdf, Enterprise Research Centre
Jibril, H., Roper, S., and Hart, M (2021) ‘Covid-19 business support and SME productivity in the UK’: https://www.productivity.ac.uk/publications/covid-19-business-support-and-sme-productivity-in-the-uk
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