In a recent speech, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that work is good for those with anxiety and milder depression and has signalled that benefits may be removed from some mental health sufferers as part of a reform of the benefits system. But his assertion has provoked an outcry from mental health charities including Mind, who argue that individuals experiencing mental health issues need tailored support and not the threat of losing income. ERC researchers have been tracking employer experiences of managing workplace mental health issues in England since before the COVID-19 pandemic. We have recently extended the focus of this research to include employers in Ireland and Sweden, two countries with very different approaches to workplace mental health than the UK. What do our findings add to the debates about this important topic?

OECD data shows that levels of mental ill health, including depression and anxiety, are remarkably similar in the UK, Ireland and Sweden, with between 17.7 and 18.5 per cent of the population of all three countries diagnosed with these issues every year. Yet the costs of mental health issues, expressed as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), vary considerably, accounting for 3.17 per cent in Ireland, 4.07 per cent in the UK and 4.83 per cent in Sweden. The majority of this divergence is accounted for by social benefits in Sweden, which includes government-funded sickness absence of 80 per cent of an employee’s salary for 364 days, compared to 28 weeks of employer-funded statutory sick pay in the UK and just five days statutory sick pay in Ireland, also employer-funded.  So, in Sweden, a much higher proportion of the cost of mental health sickness is borne by the government. Perhaps for this reason, our research found Swedish employers are more likely than their English and Irish counterparts to report mental health-related sickness absence. And this difference is particularly striking when it comes to long-term sickness absence (of four weeks or more), which is reported by 88 per cent of Swedish employers compared to only 38 per cent and 44 per cent of English and Irish employers respectively.

Despite being more likely to report mental health related absence, however, our research also found that Swedish employers are significantly less likely to say that such absence impacted on the operation or performance of their business. Only 43 per cent of Swedish employers felt the impact of mental health sickness absence, compared to 58 percent of English and 46 per cent of Irish employers. Why the difference?

Well, while employers in all three countries believe they have responsibilities to deal with mental health issues in the workplace, our research shows that Swedish employers are much more likely to adopt initiatives to address these issues. Our data shows that 78 per cent of Swedish employers have adopted some kind of mental health initiative, compared with 52 per cent and 46 per cent of English and Irish employers respectively. The initiatives the Swedish employers adopt are also generally more strategic (e.g., having a mental health budget or a mental health lead at board level) and focused on holistic wellbeing (e.g., providing counselling support or gym membership), in contrast with the training and monitoring approaches favoured by English employers. This is true of Swedish firms in all sectors and of all sizes, and it demonstrates that the mental health agenda is more embedded in Swedish firms, perhaps because it is typically prioritised at a more senior level within the company. In English and Irish firms, we are more likely to discern a gap between intention and action when it comes to workplace mental health.

There is no doubt that at least some of the difference we observe can be attributed to national policy differences. We have already noted significant differences in government funding of sickness absence, but we can also point to Swedish working hours legislation which emphasises the importance of work-life balance, and to the Swedish government’s unilateral adoption in 2003 of the diagnosis of stress-induced exhaustion disorder (SED) which generally requires long-term sickness absence to address. We can also point to cultural differences between Sweden England and Ireland which may mean that Swedes are more willing to disclose mental health issues, and that they are more likely to prioritise a good life-work balance. Whatever the underlying reasons, it seems clear that we can learn from Sweden’s approach to these challenges by, for example, viewing workplace wellbeing as a more strategic issue, and by ensuring that employers have the support they need to address these issues in a more holistic way.

You can read the full ERC report, More absence, but less impact on business performance. What can we learn from Swedish approaches to managing workplace mental health? here 

Maria Wishart, ERC Research Fellow


  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