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Absences due to mental health is affecting 57 per cent of firms

Workplace absences due to mental health sickness have increased in 2022 after falling during the pandemic, a new study suggests.

The incidence of ‘presenteeism’ - employees working while they are unwell - has also increased, although it has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

More firms also warned that mental health-related sickness was now impacting on business performance.

The study, conducted by the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) at Warwick Business School, tracked the experiences of 237 firms dealing with mental health and wellbeing from 2020, just before the pandemic began, through 2021 and 2022.

It found that 33 per cent of firms reported having staff with mental health-related sickness absence prior to the pandemic. This declined to 26 per cent in 2021 and rose to 30 per cent in 2022.

Meanwhile, 35 per cent of firms reported issues with presenteeism in 2020, but this fell markedly to 20 per cent in 2021, increasing again to 26 per cent in 2022.

The proportion of firms reporting that mental health-related sickness absence is impacting on their business followed the same pattern, with 58 per cent reporting business impacts in 2020, falling to 51 per cent in 2021, and rising again to 57 per cent in 2022.

The main impacts reported included effects on colleagues and morale; impacts on costs and efficiency problems. In previous analysis the researchers estimated that workplace mental health problems could reduce the overall productivity of firms by a quarter.

Report author Maria Wishart, a Research Fellow at the ERC and Warwick Business School, said: “Our findings provide a warning of the growing mental health problems in UK workplaces as they re-adjust after the pandemic.

“This may reflect a reduction in remote working, with 62 per cent of firms telling us that all staff who had been working remotely during the pandemic are now back to their previous working patterns.

“It is possible that increased levels of home-working meant fewer mental health issues. Alternatively, it may have meant that mental health conditions were more likely to go unnoticed, as our previous research showed that the pandemic created several new triggers for mental ill-health.”

Alongside the rise in mental health problems, the study found evidence of more positive trends.

More firms are funding mental health initiatives, and more have dedicated mental health budgets, up from around 31 per cent of firms in 2020 to nearly 37 per cent in 2022.

There are also more firms adopting specific initiatives, including awareness raising programmes for staff and providing line managers with training to identify mental health issues.

The number of firms with employee mental health champions has risen sharply, from 29 per cent in 2020 to 43 per cent in 2022.

There was also an increase in the provision of counselling and personal resilience training, alongside evidence of greater employer engagement with mental health organisations. Around 20 per cent of firms said that they would approach a mental health organisation for help and advice in 2022, up from 15 per cent in 2020 and only 11 per cent in 2021.

Dr Wishart said “Although it is encouraging to see that more employers are taking the mental health of their workforce seriously and are funding initiatives, the majority still do not do so. This is particularly the case for smaller businesses.

“Our previous research has also shown that workplace mental health problems have a real impact on productivity, so there is also a strong business case for taking mental health seriously, particularly in the challenging economic times we now face.”

The Mental Health and Productivity Pilot (MHPP), an initiative funded by Midlands Engine, has been helping companies across the Midlands to take steps to support and improve the mental health of their workforce – and boost their bottom line at the same time.

Sean Russell, MHPP Programme Director, said: “It’s great to hear from this latest ERC research that more and more Midlands firms are putting initiatives in place to support employee mental wellbeing. We now need to understand whether this positive action is actually having an impact on organisational productivity as well as improving employee mental wellbeing.

“The next phase of our programme focuses on that. Through our partnership of academic experts across the Midlands, we are working with organisations of all sizes, not only to give them access to evidence-based mental wellbeing initiatives, but to understand individual organisations’ challenges and provide them with a bespoke response that is tailored to their specific need.”

Further reading:

Wishart, M, 2022. Workplace mental health and well-being during COVID-19: Evidence from three waves of employer surveys. ERC Insight Paper, Enterprise Research Centre.

Wishart, M., Roper, S., and Belt, V. 2021. Workplace mental health and wellbeing in Midlands firms before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. ERC Insight Paper, Enterprise Research Centre.

Maria Wishart is a Research Fellow in the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick Business School.

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