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Mental ill-health in the workplace is costing UK employers billions

Mental ill-health, including stress, depression and anxiety, is thought to be responsible for 91 million lost working days each year, more than for any other illness.

Analysts reckon that this sickness absence costs £8.4 billion each year, plus another £15.1 billion in reduced productivity. A further £2.4 billion is lost replacing staff who leave work because of mental ill-health. Overall, recent estimates put the cost to UK employers at £30 billion each year.

In the face of such figures, it's surprising that more employers don't make it a priority to promote positive mental health in the workplace. By taking some practical steps to improve management of mental health at work, it's estimated that employers should be able to cut losses by about a third. Even so, more than one in four HR directors said that they had no formal process to deal with stress and anxiety, according to a recent survey by OfficeTeam.

This may be because of two related problems. The first is the stigma surrounding mental ill-health, despite its prevalence. One in four of us will at some stage suffer from mental illness. Employees are often reluctant to come forward and discuss mental issues with their employers, and by the same token, evidence suggests many employers underestimate the extent of the problem among employees.

The causes of mental health problems are often beyond the control of employers. Nonetheless, there are many ways employers can promote good mental health at work.

Keeping an eye on areas that commonly cause stress is a good place to start. When employees feel overloaded with work, lack control over projects, are unsure about what is expected of them, feel anxious about how change is managed or mistrust working relationships, stress levels tend to soar.

Supportive line managers monitor workloads and ensure work variety. They seek to include employees in decision-making, build positive working relationships in which employees feel comfortable to talk about their problems.

They are also alert to any changes in the behaviour of their employees. Becoming withdrawn or moody, being unable to make decisions or keep time, or being absent from work more than usual are among the common symptoms of the main mental health conditions - though it has to be said that everyone has good and bad days. Sometimes just having a quiet word will create the space that an employee needs to air a problem.

It's crucial for managers to be able to identify what is controllable and what isn't. Acas can help with this and many other areas to promote positive mental health. Acas can assist employers to tackle the stigma around mental health as well as develop solutions to help employees help themselves.

Acas has published the advisory booklet Mental health and launched a training course on Mental Health Awareness for Employers to help managers and supervisors raise awareness of and manage mental health issues in the workplace.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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