Mental health issues have received a high profile in recent months, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence suggests that the crisis provoked by the pandemic has led to an inexorable increase in mental ill-health, and that this in turn has implications for productivity and employee wellbeing. Yet research carried out by the ERC indicates that many employers have been slow to respond, and are relying on their line managers, who are often untrained in the complexities of workplace mental health issues, to deal with these challenges. As the pandemic continues to make its impact felt, employers will need to be ready to invest in training for their staff, so that they can provide appropriate and timely support for those experiencing mental health issues at work.

Workplace mental health issues are widespread – more than 60 per cent of employees questioned in a 2018 survey[1] reported having experienced mental health issues where work was a contributing factor. Of course, that was pre-pandemic. All the evidence suggests that a legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic may well be something of a mental health crisis in the UK. Depression, for example, doubled during lockdown[2] and the proportion of adults reporting psychological distress increased from around 20 per cent in 2019 to nearly 30 per cent in England in April 2020[3]. Perhaps most worryingly, a recent forecast by the Centre for Mental Health[4] predicted that up to ten million people in the UK – 20 per cent of the population – will require either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the crisis. Clearly, this increased prevalence of mental health issues will be felt by employers and employees alike.

Prior research has demonstrated the significant impact of mental health issues in the workplace, for employers and employees. For example, in early 2020, Deloitte[5] put the annual cost of these issues to UK employers at around £45 billion, and ERC analysis[6] carried out pre-pandemic found that mental health-related sickness absence was associated with reduced productivity of around 18 per cent. An independent review[7] of workplace mental health found that 300,000 UK employees lose their jobs every year because of poor mental health. Yet we also know that many employers are unaware of the extent and impacts of mental health issues, and that only 12 per cent would approach a mental health expert organisation for help with these issues6.

In an ERC survey carried out pre-pandemic, in early 20206, 44 per cent of employers reported that they had adopted some kind of initiatives to help support good mental health in the workplace, and encouragingly this proportion had increased to 52 per cent in follow-up research done in early 2021[8]. However, only a quarter of firms actually have a designated budget for such activities, and this figure has remained static. Analysis carried out by the ERC8  suggests that when it comes to supporting mental health in the workplace, employers are most likely to adopt practices such as encouraging open conversations and making appropriate adjustments for people returning after absence. While such initiatives are an important element of workplace programmes to support mental health, they rely on line managers being willing and able to put them into practice. Worryingly, less than half of employers surveyed offered any training in workplace mental health support to their line managers 8. This suggests that many employers may be relying on untrained or under-trained line managers to deliver their mental health support initiatives.

We know that employers who have adopted initiatives to support mental health in the workplace often report improved firm-level outcomes. For example, 53 per cent said that overall business performance had improved, and 59 per cent cited higher levels of job satisfaction6. In the light of the apparently inexorable rise in workplace mental health issues, providing training for line managers in dealing with them would appear to be a wise and timely investment.

Maria Wishart, Research Fellow, ERC , WBS

Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the

Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group.

[1] BITC. (2018). Mental Health at Work 2018 report – Seizing the Momentum [2] ONS. (2020). Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: June 2020 [3] UK Government. (2021). Covid-19 mental health and wellbeing surveillance report [4] Centre for Mental Health. (2020). Covid-19 and the nation’s mental health Forecasting needs and risks in the UK: May 2020.                                                           
 [5] Deloitte (2020) Mental Health and Employers. Deloitte [6] ERC. (2020). A baseline study for the Mental Health and Productivity Pilot project  [7]Stevenson, D., & Farmer, P. (2017). Thriving at work: The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers. Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health   [8] ERC. (2021). Workplace Mental Health in Midlands Firms 2021: Baseline report.