Lorry drivers on tight schedules. Pet owners demanding more from their vets. Sales and service staff working from home with little access to office support. Archaeologists staying in hotels as a way of life. Hospitality staff working longer than contracted hours to make ends meet. Short-term contracts restricting access to finance. Ex-Army personnel with PTSD adapting to life on civvy street. Just-in-time supply chains and squeezes on costs, keeping wages low. Client deadlines. Colleagues stepping in to help. Bosses struggling to tackle the stigma attached to poor mental health.

These are some of the observations from employers in the Midlands gathered through newly published ERC research undertaken on the eve of the Covid-19 crisis.

The picture painted is one of busy workers in busy workplaces facing customer demands for high quality and high speed at low cost.

The research, funded by the Midlands Engine, is part of a three-year programme to develop evidence-based interventions to help employers support good mental health – the Mental Health and Productivity Pilot (MHPP).  The study explored the prevalence, causes and business impact of mental health sickness absence through a survey of almost 1900 private sector employers and accompanying qualitative research.

Three in ten (30%) businesses reported sickness absence due to mental health problems, accounting for about 17% of sickness absence. Employers were most likely to report the causes of sickness absence as being issues outside the workplace. But to inform the MHPP, in the qualitative research, we explored causes of poor mental health in the workplace and a range of factors emerged:

  • Recruitment practices (i.e. the recruitment of people who have the skills for the job, but have a pre-existing mental health conditions)
  • Lone working (workers based at, from or away from home – ‘Whether it’s true or not, we do find that if you work remotely it can sometimes be a bit of a lonely role’);
  • Job insecurity;
  • Client pressure which cascades through the workforce (‘…there are mental health issues in terms of pressure that we may or may not put on our employees and what our expectations of people are… do we cause mental health issues with anxiety and stress…?’) ;
  • Broader societal factors (e.g. one respondent noted ‘we’re living in a far more troubled world’).

Employers reacted flexibly to staff with mental health problems, through redeployment, line manager training, and even moving to permanent contracts.

However, on the whole, a minority of firms were offering proactive support for their employees’ mental health: just 44% said they offered some form of support, and only 22% of businesses had a mental health or wellbeing plan in which to frame those activities.

This is not because employers don’t care. They do. Four in five firms disagreed with the statement ‘mental health is a personal issue and not one which should be addressed at work’, 60% disagreed strongly.

And good mental health matters for the bottom line. Our research found sickness related to mental health is associated with productivity which is lower by 18.3 per cent, that’s almost a fifth lower productivity in firms with mental health sickness absence compared to those without.

Is this “busyness” bad for our mental health and bad for business performance?

The world may seem like a very different place compared to early March 2020, but, many of the factors employers cited as causes of mental health sickness absence pre-Covid-19 have arguably been amplified by the pandemic – job insecurity, remote working, broader societal factors.

And this is reflected in ONS[1] data which show higher levels of anxiety now – at the end of March 2020, almost 50% of people reported “high” anxiety – compared to 21% at the end of 2019.

The ONS has been conducting more frequent and detailed surveys since the lockdown commenced and published regional data yesterday[2] for the first time. Whilst overall, 80% of people in Britain were worried about the effect that the coronavirus pandemic was having on their life during April, people in the West Midlands were more worried than average (81%) and people in East Midlands slightly less worried (76%). Of these, 90% in the East Midlands and 82% in the West Midlands said that they had felt either stressed, anxious or worried about the future or that their mental health had become worse in April.

As the lockdown eases, what can employers do?

In our research, few employers were aware of existing initiatives to help them support the wellbeing of their staff. Even before Covid-19, 64% of businesses in the Midlands said they would like to provide more mental health support for staff. They tend to look to colleagues in their own organisation for advice, or to HR consultancies, or search the internet. They are less likely to approach a mental health charity specifically or a government body. Awareness of the increasing number of guides available (e.g. from HSE) is low. There is an opportunity to raise the profile of these guides, but they should be promoted using the right message and through the right messengers (e.g. sector or professional bodies).

Where good practice was evident amongst Midlands employers, it was underpinned by leadership support; staff engagement and co-operation; time and/or a track record of wellbeing activities.

These conditions can’t be created overnight. But perhaps the crisis has helped to overcome two barriers to employers providing more mental health support – awareness of the issue and taking the first difficult steps.

Perhaps it has also raised awareness of the personal and business costs of “busyness”.

As we adapt to the new normal, it has never seemed more important to build on the willingness and on best business practice to ensure all workers have access to good quality mental health support and good mental health working conditions.

Our personal, and UK economic health, may depend on it.

Carol Stanfield, Research Associate, ERC

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] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/may2020
[2] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsonthecountriesandregionsofbritain/april2020