The number of staff taking time off for mental ill-health is on the increase, according to research by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and insurer AVIVA.
Just under 30% of businesses surveyed said they had seen an increase in the number of employees affected by mental health issues in the previous three years, prompting experts to suggest more needs to be done to increase both disclosure of mental health issues and support mechanisms for employees.
Just 2% of respondents said mental ill-health had decreased over the period. A third said the length of absences related to mental health had also gone up.
And the CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) Wellbeing at Work survey suggested more than a fifth of organisations cited mental illness as the primary cause of long-term absence.
Rachel Suff, CIPD employee relations advisor, said: “We are clearly facing a significant challenge around managing people’s health at work, but there has been an encouraging increase in the number of organisations raising awareness of mental health issues across the workforce, which could be contributing to increased disclosure of a mental health issue.”
The head of communications at the Mental Health Foundation, Richard Grange, said the increase in absences could signal a gradual breaking down of the stigma surrounding mental health.
He said: “While it is concerning that there are so many people experiencing mental health problems, the fact they are able to report it to their employers is a good thing.
“Being able to talk about mental health without fear of stigma means people are able to get help more quickly. It can stop a small issue escalating into a far larger problem and also prevents long-term absences,” Grange added.
Being able to open up about depression has recently been linked to increased productivity at work. A London School of Economics (LSE) study of 15 countries, including the UK, revealed employees hiding their condition take more days off work than their openly unwell counterparts.
BCC and AVIVA’s survey of 1,000 UK business leaders found many were reacting to mental health issues. More than a third (36%) had begun reviewing individual workloads, while 35% were considering flexible working options. One in five (20%) were organising counselling for staff and 18% had organised training for managers to better support individuals.
Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change, a mental health charity, said: “It’s positive to hear that more employers are creating working environments where people feel able to open up about mental health, and take time off should they need to. Increased disclosure, which often occurs as the result of a change in culture towards mental health, helps to ensure people get support sooner and can prevent longer term sickness absence.”
Richard Isham, partner at Wedland Blake LLP, said that while there was a moral case for supporting staff, doing so also made “business sense”. Taking substantive action to promote mental health in the workplace can directly affect the bottom line, he said.
“It is necessary in order to reduce businesses’ exposure to tribunal claims and the reputational harm from adverse findings,” said Isham. “The responsibility on employers is more substantive than just enlightened self-interest.”
While businesses must evaluate the cost of increased workplace support, Isham added, inaction carried a greater cost. “Mental ill health-related absences are estimated to cost at least £26 billion per year,” he said. “So the economic cost is huge, but so too is the human cost; for the sufferers and for those around them, both at work and at home. Tragically, the ultimate human cost is the loss of life through suicide.”
Brunsdon Managing Director Marcus Gomery agrees and sums up by saying, "As employee benefits and workplace health protection specialists, we're starting to see employers asking us to help with mental health issues. We can put in place confidential helplines - because it's not always easy for employees to approach colleagues or bosses - to arrange counselling sessions, etc."
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