Poor mental health is main cause of long-term absence, study suggests

Two in five companies have seen an increase in employees taking long-term leave because of poor mental health

15th March 2023 about a 3 minute read
“Increased sick leave means lower business productivity and high stress levels, and when not managed properly or supported, the risks, costs and disruption can be far greater.” Anthony Bruce, chairman of health industries, PwC

Mental illness is the main cause of long-term sickness in the workforce, according to a new survey conducted for the Times Health Commission by consultancy firm PwC.

The survey of 150 businesses found that that two in five companies had seen an increase in employees taking long-term sick leave because of mental ill health. Two-thirds of employers reported an increase in the use of counselling services since the pandemic.

The results coincide with measures to be announced this week by chancellor Jeremy Hunt to encourage the long-term sick to return to work. Hunt believes that encouraging some of the nine million economically inactive adults back to work is key to improving productivity.

More than half of employees said that the mental health of staff had worsened since the pandemic, while 53% said that the cost-of-living crisis had damaged the wellbeing of their employees. The survey also found that 59% of businesses agreed that employee health had an impact on economic performance.

Mental health support was the most in-demand benefit for employers, the survey found, with 64% saying there had been an increase in the number of staff asking for counselling. For comparison, 19% reported a rise in requests for gym membership and 21% reported an increase for private medical insurance.

Change in working patterns as result of ill health

Catherine McKinney, 42, the deputy executive director of Soho Theatre in London, told the Times it had been important for the charity to include mental health coverage when seeking private health care for its employees. At the beginning of the 2021 financial year, the theatre bought a package plan with a counselling add-on with Equipsme, paying just over £1,000 per month.

She said: “The jobs in the arts are hard so we are just trying to make sure we are being good employers, and we know as an industry, we felt like stress and counselling support was probably going to be something that would be used by our staff.”

McKinney said that the theatre had also introduced mental health first aid training for more staff: “The quicker you get started, the quicker it helps. We have seen people go from people under-par to being back to their normal selves, and it’s very satisfying to know that we’ve been able to help.”

More than 40% of employers surveyed have seen an increase in changes to working patterns due to ill health since the pandemic, with more people reducing their hours or going part-time. Almost half of businesses have seen an increase in employees requesting flexible working patterns, including returning from maternity and paternity leave, compared with before the pandemic.

Anthony Bruce, chairman of health industries at PwC, said the survey showed how important it was for employers to prioritise staff wellbeing: “Increased sick leave means lower business productivity and high stress levels, and when not managed properly or supported, the risks, costs and disruption can be far greater.”

He added: “Helping employees to stay productive in work not only benefits organisations, it promotes the employee’s mental wellbeing and financial security at a time when stress and economic hardship are a worry for many.”

Last week, the Times reported an analysis by financial consulting firm Lane Clark & Peacock showing that the increase in numbers of economically inactive people is not the result of people taking early retirement but of an increase in numbers experiencing long-term sickness.

FCC Insight

This survey supports other reports suggesting that there has been an increase in people experiencing long-term mental ill-health since the pandemic – though we also note last week’s BMJ study showing that the effect of Covid-19 on mental health may not have been as great as previously feared. Nonetheless, the findings by the Times Health Commission appear to be real, and it is concerning to see that so many employers are reporting rising numbers of employees with poor mental health. Whether the causes are related to the pandemic or to the cost-of-living crisis or something else altogether is not yet clear, but the findings suggest that, if the government wants economically inactive people to return to work, it needs to focus efforts on addressing the mental health crisis rather than other incentives.