What is the cost of a workforce with poor mental health to the UK economy? The 2017 Thriving at Work Report from (Farmer and Stevenson) estimated that poor mental health costs UK businesses somewhere between £33 billion and £42 billion. That was £1,300 per employee per year due to lost productivity, increased absence and higher staff churn. And the figures for 2019 were even higher.

You might think that the largest cost comes from absenteeism or staff turnover. But the biggest cost to business comes from lost productivity – from the staff who are present at work but not in good mental health.

An employee showing signs of workplace stress and presenteeism = showing up for work on a day when they are mentally or physically unable to do the job to the best of their abilities

Staff who should take time off but continue to work are presentees. Presentees desperately want to work hard. So, each day, no matter their physical or mental health, they drag themselves into work. Great, right? You’ve not lost a member of staff for the day. What a fantastic employee – it’s business as usual thanks to their dedication!

But there’s a problem. And it’s obvious when you stop and think about it.

Just how productive do you think a member of staff can be if they’re unwell? Can you really assume that a person with the flu will perform the same as when they are well? Definitely not. Maybe for a short time they will be able to keep on top of things, but it won’t be long before their work starts to slip. They might deny the issue, but as their manager, you’d be best insisting they recover and come back better in a few days. If you keep them at work, chances you’ll soon be dealing with a host of problems that they cannot help causing because they’re unable to focus.

Mental health and presenteeism

Although some people will become presentees when they have a physical illness, it’s usually something colleagues and management can empathise with – like having a virus or  upset stomach.

Let’s think for a moment about flue. What if people believed that if you had flu, you were a weak person because you let it happen to you? What if people believed that you deserved to have it because you had made bad choices in your life? And what if people believed you would never recover from it and that it defined who you were as if it was the only thing in your life that mattered? Whenever anyone spoke about you, they’d be sure to mention your illness.

Would you tell anyone?

Stigma greatly impacts presenteeism due to poor mental health. Just like physical illnesses, everyone is susceptible to mental health conditions . However, talking about it is something people are often reluctant to do. This is because up until very recently, society has seen mental health conditions as shameful and a mark of weakness. And as a result people are silent more often than they speak out about mental health or mental wellbeing.

As you would imagine, there’s a cost to this culture of silence. And this is currently somewhere in the region of £26 billion.

That’s £26 billion lost through employees who are unwilling to take time off for a mental health condition. Instead, as with a physical illness, they turn up, tune out and become less and less productive.

Despite a number of high-profile public figures ‘coming out’ about their mental health disorders, a stigma still exists in the workplace. Research has found that only 1 in 10 employees would talk about a mental health condition with their line manager. Worryingly, only 24% of managers had received any form of mental health training (Business in the Community. Mental Health at Work Report 2017). This culture of silence drives up the cost of poor mental health because issues that could be dealt with remain hidden.

Employees worry that they will suffer discrimination if they discuss an issue they are having. So, many employees try to hide the fact they are stressed or are dealing with a mental health condition. And this leads directly to another cost of poor mental health.

Although the financial cost of presenteeism and mental health to business is staggering, the human cost is more worrying. 1 in 4 people will deal with a mental health condition at some point in their lives (NHS, 2014), and yet 57% of people would not disclose a mental health condition to anyone at all. Not friends, not family – no-one.

As a result, we see the human cost of poor mental health reflected in such shocking statistics as the fact that somewhere in the world a suicide takes place every 40 seconds. And for every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts.

Investing in mental health pays off

At first glance, investing in mental health might not appear the best way to spend your budget. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. When Deloitte (2017) looked closely at 23 companies that had done exactly this, the results showed a consistently positive ROI. For every £1.00 spent on mental health interventions on staff, companies saw a return of £4.00 on average.

But that’s just an average. Companies investing in proactive support like mental health mentoring saw a maximum return of 6:1. If they invested in cultural change and raising awareness, they saw a maximum of 8:1. It’s easy to see why there’re so many financial benefits once the cost of losing valuable employees is considered.

Recruiting, on-boarding and training new staff takes time, energy and money and the benefits of a business having better staff retention go way beyond the bottom line. Happy, healthy staff are not only less likely to become presentees, they are strong and positive advocates for a business.

At Business Mental Wellbeing it is our mission to reduce presenteeism and give organisations the support and resources they need to put staff wellbeing firmly on the business agenda.

To book a discovery call with Craig or to learn more, contact us here.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash