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Most cases of work absence are now due to mental health issues

Image of box of tissues next to mug to symbolise illness
Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash

By Miles Aiken

Updated research from the UK Health and Safety Executive estimates that 17 million working days were lost to depression, anxiety or work-related stress in 2021-22 alone.

In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the causes of workplace absence in the UK.

Long gone are the days when the most common reasons for absence were physical ailments such as the flu, stomach bugs, or back pain.

Instead, the majority of workplace absence is now due to poor mental health, with the latest research from the UK Health and Safety Executive estimating that 17 million working days were lost to depression, anxiety, or work-related stress in 2021–22 alone.

This means that common mental health issues now account for 51% of all work-related ill health, which is likely to have been worsened by the COVID-19 outbreak and governmental measures.

A pie chart showing new and long-standing cases of work-related ill health by type

Further illustrating the problem, in 2018 Mental health charity Mind found that 48% of employees have experienced poor mental health in their current job, and almost half of those surveyed (49%) cited work as the main cause of their poor mental health.

This portrays the growing importance of addressing mental health in the workplace and promoting a culture of openness surrounding these issues.

A 2017 study conducted by Deloitte found that poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £45 billion per year, with the majority of this cost being borne by employers who suffer from lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and increased staff turnover.

This cost is likely to be larger with the rise of working days lost due to mental health.

An unhealthy working culture?

Despite the COVID-19 situation having worsened this situation, there is a general trend of increasing pressure being placed on many employees to perform at high levels and work long hours.

The rise of technology and the 24/7 work culture has also made it increasingly difficult for employees to switch off and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

The UK Labour party is even reportedly planning to implement the “right to switch off” for UK workers outside of working hours in its new party manifesto, following in the shoes of European legislation.

Employers have a crucial role to play in addressing these issues. By promoting a culture of openness surrounding mental health, and providing adequate support and resources to employees experiencing poor mental health, employers can help foster a healthy and productive workplace.

Promisingly, many UK organisations are experimenting with flexible working hours, promoting the importance of taking regular breaks, and providing access to counselling or other forms of mental health support.


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