Mental Ill Health Drives Britain’s Crisis of Worker Sickness: Research

Mental ill-health is now the main cause of sickness absence from work in the UK, costing employers billions of pounds and holding back efforts to boost productivity, according to new research.

In the final quarter of 2022, more than 85 million working days were lost to employee ill health, at an estimated cost to firms of £12.3 billion ($15.3 billion). Mental-health issues accounted for almost a fifth.

The analysis by GoodShape, which advises companies on employee health and wellbeing, shows how a health crisis that erupted during the pandemic is getting worse two years after COVID restrictions were lifted.

Sickness is adding to the burden of employers, which are struggling to find staff due to hundreds of thousands of people – many of them declaring long-term sickness – dropping out of the workforce since the pandemic.

The squeeze has driven up wages and contributed to double-digit inflation. It’s also weighing on productivity, which has grown at a sluggish pace since the financial crisis 15 years ago.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics Wednesday [April 26] showed that output per worker was 0.2% lower in the fourth quarter than a year earlier.

A separate ONS analysis showed that the sickness absence rate — the percentage of working hours lost — rose to 2.6% in 2022 as a whole. That’s the highest it’s been since 2004.

Groups with the highest rates of sickness absence included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, people working part-time, and people working in care, leisure, or other service occupations, the ONS said.

According to GoodShape, the number of lost days due to poor health in the fourth quarter was 25% higher than a year earlier. Mental ill-health, which overtook medical infections including COVID as the main cause of absence in the middle of last year, surged by over 40%.

The figures will throw of spotlight on the crisis in the National Health Service, where staff shortages and soaring demand have left more than a million people waiting for community mental-health services.

Experts say a lack of help is preventing many with conditions such as depression and anxiety that developed during lockdowns from returning to work.

“The impact of poor mental health on the productivity of the UK workforce is hugely underestimated,” said GoodShape CEO Alun Baker. “One in four of us experience mental health problems each year, and unless employers help their people get appropriate support early on, common problems can escalate into something much more serious.”

The GoodShape research was based on its proprietary database of workplace absences and workforce wellbeing covering more than 750,000 employee records.

Photograph: Morning commuters exit Liverpool Street railway station in the City of London, UK, on Monday, Oct. 25, 2022. Photo credit: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg

Copyright 2023 Bloomberg.


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