Worsening mental health in the workplace is a growing issue, which employers need to get on top of urgently, says Adrian Lewis, commercial director at Activ Absence during Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May).

New research from the Office for National Statistics[i] shows that one in five adults experienced some form of depression in 2021 – more than double the level recorded before the pandemic. Women and younger adults are most affected, with 43% of women aged 16 to 29 and 26% of men of the same age experiencing symptoms.

Other recent research from the CIPD[ii] highlighted an increase in presenteeism from staff working from home during the pandemic. 77% of HR professionals surveyed saw presenteeism in staff working from home, while a similar number (75%) saw it in employees attending the workplace. 70% also said employees were working outside of contracted hours or using annual leave to catch up on work and many organisations were not taking action to address these issues.

Lewis says, “The blurring of the lines between home life and work life means some feel they can’t switch off and often work longer hours or don’t take screen breaks. The result is rising presenteeism with people not taking time off even if they are unwell and rising levels of depression.

“The impact of the pandemic is likely to be felt for years and employers need to act to support people’s mental wellbeing and be able to recognise the symptoms of poor mental health and to encourage a culture of openness on the issue.”

Mental Health Awareness Week is organised by the Mental Health Foundation who chose Nature as this year’s theme[iii]. The charity wants to highlight the benefits of nature for mental health. Their research showed that going for walks outside was one of the top coping strategies for people during the pandemic, and 45% reported being in green spaces had been vital for their mental health.

Lewis adds, “Employers can support their employee mental wellbeing in several ways. Using the theme of nature, why not encourage people to take breaks and get outside for a walk at lunchtime or discover the nature in their back garden or on the street while enjoying a coffee break.

“Our company has just launched a step challenge to encourage staff to record their daily steps. This promotes a bit of healthy competition and people have reported real benefits from getting out more during the day. While this is a simple measure it can be a real mood enhancer.

“Other ways to support mental health is to use technology such as absence management software to track absence. This enables managers to spot patterns in sickness behaviour and to ensure back to work interviews are done, which can be a confidential and safe place for people to discuss any issues with their manager.

“This software also records annual leave so if workers are failing to take their allocated holidays they can be encouraged to do so. Taking holidays is essential for wellbeing and for getting some rest and recuperation away from their working life.

“As workplaces start to return to normal it’s vital employers understand the impact that last 14 months may have had on people. While they may not previously have felt they needed to have policies in place to support mental health and wellbeing, it’s clear this must be a priority because employees need to know they have support should they need it.

“Simple steps such as encouraging breaks, having Friday afternoon drinks or weekly coffee mornings via teams or zoom and using technology can all help. So can directing people to services such as EAPs or other counselling services if they need support.

“Investing in your people and supporting their mental wellbeing will ensure you have a happy, motivated and productive workforce, something which is essential to ensure the business recovers as the economy starts to pick up.”

For more information on absence management software visit www.activabsence.co.uk

[i] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/depression-covid-pandemic-britain-1-in-5-adults-2021-ons-b933338.html

[ii] https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/majority-of-employers-seeing-presenteeism-in-their-workforce#gref

[iii] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/why-nature