unexplained mental health, UK economy
© Silvia Sala

Stigma around mental health struggles and burnout is costing the UK economy £1.4 billion a year through unexplained mental health days, according to a new report

• 40% of employees are uncomfortable telling their managers they need to take days off for mental health reasons, research from Breathe reveals
• Three-quarters of employees and decision makers consider mental health issues an acceptable reason for absences

A new report from Breathe, reveals British workers are still uncomfortable disclosing mental health issues or burnout, as nearly a quarter (23%) admit they would rather take an unexplained sick day than discuss their issues with their employers.

Indeed, the research found 40% of employees are uncomfortable calling in sick to their employer for a mental health reason, even though business owners ranked mental health issues as the third (75%) most ‘acceptable reason to call in sick’ — a significant increase from its prior ranking (17%) from Benenden Health’s 2015 study.

According to Breathe’s ‘Sick Report 2019: the state of health and well-being in British SMEs’, which surveyed over 1,500 employees and SME business leaders, unexplained sicks days are costing the UK economy £1.4 billion annually.

Our research found that 23% of employees have ‘thrown a sickie’ in the last 12 months. That figure by itself might not seem like an awful lot. However, SMEs employed 16.8 million people in the UK at the end of 2016. Apply that percentage to the total number of people employed by SMEs and you’re looking at 3.8m people that haven’t gone to work in the last year.

Add to this the fact that those people who throw a sickie do so on average three times a year, and that equates to SMEs losing more than 7.5 million working days. Based on the average UK salary of £27,000 those sick days have a combined value of £1.4 billion to the UK’s GDP.

This research echoes recent findings from CIPD alongside Simplyhealth that revealed nearly two-fifths of UK businesses (37%) have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, with heavy workloads and poor management style to blame.

Jonathan Richards, CEO at Breathe commented:

“Running a business is one of the most challenging things someone can do and our research shows mental health issues are prevalent at board level too. This makes it all the more important for SMEs to focus on its company culture by prioritising employee health and well-being, this means leading from the front and practising what you preach.

“After all, employee and boardroom burnout is not conducive to business success.”

Other key findings from the report found:

1.) Persistent presenteeism

50% of employees regularly work through their breaks and outside of working hours, indicating that presenteeism – a known contributor to stress – is commonplace in the UK’s SME workplaces.

2.) Mental health issues a key reason for sick leave

Although 53% of SME decision makers took no sick leave in the last year, of those that did, 14% were due to stress and mental health in comparison with 7% of employees

3.) Not enough support

Nearly half (46%) of employees do not receive any health and well-being benefits, such as paid sick leave, private medical insurance, free fruit, cycle to work schemes or gym memberships.

What are the six acceptable reasons for calling in sick to work?

  1. Food poisoning
  2. Flu
  3. Mental illness
  4. Migraine
  5. Stress
  6. Cold

George Bell, Partner Development at Sanctus said:

“This timely report shows people don’t talk about mental health enough — especially within the workplace. And I believe startup culture is exacerbating this problem by encouraging people to work themselves into the ground, ’sleep faster’ and move quicker.

“It’s encouraging to see more research on mental health as it should have as much publicity as our physical health does, potentially even more. Our minds are more important than our biceps.”

Ruth Sutherland, CEO at Samaritans comments on the report:

“It’s encouraging to see more employers taking the emotional health of their staff seriously. But we still have more work to do.

“The only way we can bring about real change is to create an open and supportive workplace, where staff feel able to talk about their emotional health without fear of judgment. And employers can play a crucial role in helping people look after their emotional health.”


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