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Minding your own business to boost mental health

3 September 2020: Ian Caminsky, CEO of absence management company FirstCare, explores how businesses can use detailed data to implement robust, targeted wellbeing strategies to mitigate the mental health fallout from COVID-19.

Mental health: an invisible illness

Mental health is often seen as an ‘invisible illness’, particularly in the workplace. This can lead to a sense of complacency and powerlessness among employers: how can businesses defeat an enemy which they cannot even see?

It does not have to be like this. To boost wellbeing in the workplace, businesses should start with gaining a comprehensive understanding of how poor mental health impacts their employees. To do this, they must gather the intelligence they need to create robust and targeted strategies which can prevent mental health problems spiralling out of control. This will not only boost employee wellbeing but save money. Indeed, in 2019, the UK economy lost £25bn to mental health-related absence alone.

Mental health in the age of COVID-19

Scientific evidence is already emerging that COVID-19 is having a serious impact on our mental health. Research published by The Lancet magazine has shown that, by late April 2020, mental health in the UK had deteriorated compared with pre-COVID-19 trends.

Given that we are in the early stages of the economic shock created by COVID-19, with unemployment held down by the furlough scheme for now and mortgage holidays still in place, it is clear that the mental health emergency is not going away. Even before COVID-19, mental health was a critical issue for business, with our data showing that mental health-related absence within the UK workforce has risen 21% in the last five years. In October 2019, the WHO identified mental disorders as one of the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide, yet one of the least spoken about.

We are in the throes of a mental health crisis, so employers must recognise the need to prioritise the mental health of staff – even if COVID-19 has presented other operational difficulties. But, to do that, a strong understanding of the data is necessary.

Battling an invisible illness 

FirstCare’s most recent Index Report showed that long-term mental health-related absences (20 days or more) are up 22% in Q2 year-on-year. Of course, these numbers are concerning and echo Government statistics that have revealed the number of adults suffering from depression has doubled since pre-COVID-19 times. This is a concern not just for businesses, but for policymakers and government alike who are all too aware of the impact of mental health issues on productivity.

But no matter how uncomfortable the data might be, having these kinds of insights can be helpful for a business seeking to battle this issue. Data can turn an ‘invisible illness’ into a visible one and the root causes of mental health absence can be addressed.

If such insights can then be identified at an even more granular level within a business – for example, within a certain team or department – then the power of detailed absence data becomes clear. Whether it is a simple case of managing workloads better, or if more dramatic interventions need to be made, data is the key to successful, impactful intervention. 

Get employees healthy fast

Feeling safe and supported at work is also vital for wellbeing, so it is important to make sure that employees feel able to discuss any mental health issues with someone qualified to advise them and signpost them to treatment if necessary. The earlier this is done, the better.

Our data shows that mental health-related absence is more than double the length of an average cough, cold or flu-related absence. Even more concerning is that 60% of those who miss work twice due to mental ill-health leave their position before being absent for a third time. 

Mental wellbeing and profitability go hand-in-hand, so it is vital that employers harness their data, intervene early, and make sure that all employees feel safe and supported in the workplace. No employee should feel invisible, and no mental health issue should go undetected.

FirstCare was established in 2004 and provides nurse-led care, HR technology and workforce analyses to improve wellbeing and productivity in large organisations.