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Why a cut in wellbeing is very short-sighted



Mental Health during the pandemic


In a period of unremitting grimness and tragedy, one of the positives of the pandemic has been the emphasis on mental health, and the increased importance of wellbeing initiatives in the workplace. A Lancet study estimated that the pandemic led to 53 million additional cases of major depressive disorders and 76 million additional cases of anxiety disorders globally in 2020. At a time when it was needed most, employers stepped up to the mark, and invested in wellbeing tools and policies to look after their workers. Good job.


Business starting to scale back


But there’s a sting in the tail: It appears that UK businesses are already starting to scale back these programmes, weakening the support they offer staff. According to a survey by Headspace Health 71% of workers say their company increased the focus on mental health in the wake of Covid-19, but just 25% say they have kept up that focus in the last year.


Yet the need for these programmes is, if anything, greater than ever. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that, in the wake of the pandemic, about 8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children in England will need support for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health difficulties in the coming months and years. That is the equivalent of 20% of all UK adults and 15% of all children.


The biggest cause of workplace absence


Even in the teeth of the pandemic, it wasn’t Covid itself that caused the most workplace absences, but poor mental health. GoodShape's UK PLC 2021 Workforce Health Report reveals that in 2021, poor mental health accounted for 19 per cent of all lost working time across the country, followed by confirmed cases of COVID which represented 16 per cent.

Mental health troubles were the most common cause of lost working time in nearly every industry, with absences averaging at least three times longer than for COVID-related reasons. Little wonder, then, that 71% of those surveyed by Ipsos and GoodShape maintained that mental health services are still “much needed” in the workplace.


It doesn’t add-up


The picture that is emerging is that employees and HR professionals are very clearly stating that workplace wellbeing is still a cause for concern, even as companies seem to be cutting back on investing in support. Doesn’t make sense, does it?


This is a distinctly short-sighted approach by businesses, given the troublesome economic environment in which they are currently operating. With operating costs rising, UK PLC can ill-afford to ignore the looming spectre of workplace absence. In fact, the direct cost of worker absences on UK businesses has increased from an estimated £33 billion in 2019 (Jan – Nov) to £43 billion in 2021 (Jan – Nov), an increase of 31 per cent. With mental health being the single biggest cause of these absences, it seems a poorly-judged time to be cutting back on wellbeing investment.


All the more so when you consider that more than half of people who take two mental health-related absences from work will go on to quit their job. At a time when employers are struggling to hang on to their existing workforce, losing employees to poor mental health is an eventuality they can ill-afford to absorb.


The ongoing effects on mental health


The perception among many businesses appears to be that it is now ‘business as normal’. Certainly, we are through the darkest days of lockdown and the daily release of horrifying numbers of hospitalisations and deaths. But the pandemic is not over, and its effects are still taking a toll on the population, both physically and mentally. Add to that the stresses of working from home, and the lack of a clear delineation between work and home life. And then, for good measure, throw in a cost-of-living crisis that is having a very real daily impact on people’s lives, and it becomes apparent that difficult times still lie ahead.


Dr Mansoor Soomro, a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and International Business at Teesside University, cautions: “As we recover from the [pandemic] crisis, and indeed a new cost of living crisis emerges, it is vital that businesses don’t cut back on investment in this area and continue to understand that mental health is equally important as physical health. They also need to recognise that appropriate wellness programmes help employees stay engaged and be more productive. They can also be an important differentiator when people are looking for a new employer.”


The Headspace report reveals that 30% of employees feel work harms their mental health. A big driver of that finding is the perception among employees that their companies are pulling back on mental health support at a time when workers need it the most.


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