Government and employers urged to address increasing mental health issues

  • Overall sickness absence remains low at 2.2 per cent
  • But long-term absence sees the largest rise in five years
  • Mental health issues are most difficult to make work adjustments for
  • Only one in 10 companies provide manager mental health training
  • A third of employers rely exclusively on NHS to address long-term absence
  • Four fifths of companies do not measure the cost of absence

Britain’s manufacturers are urging government, employers and GPs to tackle increasing levels of mental health and stress-related sickness absence, amid evidence that it remains in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ box.

The call was made on the back of the UK’s largest business survey on sickness absence published by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, and Jelf Employee Benefits. It shows that employers and GPs are struggling to address mental health issues in the workplace and growing concerns at long-term absence trends.

Prof Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at EEF, said: “While overall absence levels remain low, there continues to be a marked difference between short- and long-term absence that is creeping up. Without a renewed effort to tackle its root causes, it will continue to act as a drag on the economy and efforts to improve productivity and boost growth.

“Of particular concern is the gradual increase in stress- and mental-health-related problems over the last five years with which GPs and employers are struggling to deal. As a society, we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy. While employers and GPs appear able to manage other causes of absence, they must now be given the tools to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way.”

Iain Laws, managing director — UK healthcare and group risk at Jelf Employee Benefits, added: “The importance of occupational health and growth in health benefit provision resonates with employers who are increasingly recognising the productivity impact of ill health. It is therefore a little surprising that so many organisations still do not have formalised systems to identify absences at an early stage so these can be managed through effective interventions.

“Reliable, easy-to-use absence recording systems empower employers and managers to provide the support to employees to minimise absence and manage longer-term or complex cases. This in turn can have a positive impact on benefit costs as early detection and action often means lower treatment costs as well.”

According to the survey, overall sickness absence remains low at 5.1 days (2.2 per cent) with half of employees having zero absence. However, this masks evidence that the ‘sickness presenteeism’ that marked the period of recession is fading away: absence levels increasing slightly by 0.2 days, the number of manual workers reporting zero absence falling for the first time in five years and the fact only 55 per cent of companies hit their absence target, the lowest since 2008.

While overall absence levels remain low, however, there is a marked difference in long-term absence, with two fifths of companies reporting an increase and only a fifth reporting a decrease. This is the largest increase in five years, a period where long-term absence has been gradually increasing.

Back pain and musculoskeletal disorders remain the main cause of long-term absence (38 per cent) with stress and mental health disorders the main cause of absence for one in four companies, although this has gradually crept up since 2009.

However, stress and mental illness is regarded as the most difficult form of absence to make workplace adjustments for, with almost a third of companies saying this is the case. Furthermore, a third of employers said that they do not have approaches for managing mental-health-related long-term absence, while evidence suggests GPs also find it difficult to suggest workplace adjustments, highlighting the need for more training in this area.

Just one in 10 companies provide training for line managers in mental health issues and only two per cent of companies have an open mental health disclosure policy, suggesting business matches society in finding it a difficult issue to address.

The survey also shows that employers’ approach to managing absence remains mixed. Encouragingly, the number of companies setting absence targets is increasing (a third have no target compared with two fifths last year) and two fifths can make workplace adjustments or provide training to manage long-term absence.

However, in contrast, almost three quarters of companies do not measure the cost of sickness absence. In addition, 70 per cent do not measure the return on their investment for the health and wellbeing benefits they offer while only three per cent do.

According to EEF, the new Fit for Work service will be critical in reducing long-term absence, especially MSDs and mental health issues. However, EEF doubts whether the current tax incentive offered is sufficient enough to encourage employers to pay for treatment.

EEF has made the following recommendations to create conditions for the service to succeed:

  1. Ensure the service is resourced with healthcare professionals with knowledge of different industries so that appropriate interventions and adjustments can be made.
  2. Ensure return-to-work plans are discussed with all relevant parties before they are agreed and finalised.
  3. A discussion should be had between the employer and Fit for Work service before it is agreed with the employee.
  4. Introduce health tax credits or allowable business expenses to incentivise employers to pay for treatment recommended by the service or occupational health provider.
  5. There should be a mandatory referral of employees who are likely to be absent for more than four weeks.
  6. Statutory sick pay should be paid only on condition the employee co-operates with the Fit for Work Service.
  7. There should be restrictions on GPs signing employees off for more than four weeks unless the patient engages with the service.

EEF will be presenting the report’s findings at the national Safety & Health Expo in London on 16 June. Businesses interested in finding out more about the support available to help them with workplace issues, including sickness absence, should visit:

EEF chief medical adviser Prof Sayeed Khan will also be speaking on stress at the Safety & Health Expo.

Click on the link below to download a copy of the 2015 Sickness Absence Survey