Employee Mental Health: a £45bn problem

Employee Mental Health: a £45bn problem

Happy, healthy staff are more likely to be productive so enhancing employee wellbeing makes good business sense. Yet official figures show one in five employees experienced depression during 2020: that’s concerning but not surprising. Social relationships are critical for wellbeing and act as a buffer to support against mental ill health, yet the shift to hybrid or home working has reduced opportunities to develop social connections at work and to deepen them during social time. The cost to businesses of poor employee mental health in the UK has been put at a startling £45bn. Here we look at what employers can do to help. 

What happens in an employee’s life away from work can impact on performance and what happens during the work day can affect overall life quality. One area that employers may never have thought to focus on is whether their employees feel lonely both at work and away from work. But the pandemic changed that with a greater awareness of the impact on mental health due to social isolation and loneliness. 

Loneliness in the workplace is now getting more focus. In ‘Employees Are Lonelier Than Ever. Here’s How Employers Can Help’ Constance Noonan points to already high rates of employee loneliness before social distancing and remote work kicked in. Loneliness was already a growing problem in wider UK society with 2.6 million or 5% of adults always or often feeling lonely, pre-pandemic. Noonan argues that as companies consider the future of work and employee well-being, loneliness needs to be a priority. This is due to the negative impact on mental and physical health (chronic loneliness is as likely to lead to early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day) which reduces productivity and turnover and risks burnout. 

Noonan suggests ways to improve relationships within the workplace and argues it will take more than simply bringing colleagues together face to face. Fostering stronger bonds amongst colleagues would be helped by thinking about how people interact with other members of their teams. More opportunities to share and develop work can help people feel more connected and engaged as a team and boost team morale. Rewarding ways of building better relationships will help. 

People bond when they are prepared to show some vulnerability by, say, sharing something quite personal. But they will only do so if they feel their work environment is a safe place to do that: finding ways to build empathy will support this. However, employees may not realise that negative feelings about work may actually stem from loneliness. As Noonan says “what counts is whether someone perceives there is enough support in times of needs and how social the work environment feels in terms of real, empathic connections to colleagues.”  

A recent report  ‘Employers and loneliness’ written by the Campaign to End Loneliness for the government’s ‘Tackling Loneliness Network’ of employers, takes a broader view of the issue. This is discussed by Francis Churchill in his article ‘Employers key to tackling loneliness among the workforce, government says’. 

The report considers how feelings of loneliness, unrelated to work, can be brought into the workplace and could be exacerbated by workplace loneliness. Though work can give opportunities to connect, employees can also feel lonely or isolated when there. Whilst excess stress from work, such as long working hours, can spill into other areas of life creating feelings of loneliness.

The report suggests employers address loneliness and relationships within their wider work on employee wellbeing. Recommendations include employers emphasising cooperation and connectedness as important values, surveying employees about loneliness, making loneliness part of managers’ responsibilities and facilitating staff networks to help tackle the problem.

As Churchill reports, employers pay a price ”when a lack of social connection and loneliness at work means employees show less commitment and productivity and greater absenteeism and staff turnover.” A 2017 Co-op survey cited by the report, says loneliness costs UK employers an estimated £2.5bn a year. The majority due to staff turnover (£1.6bn or 64%) and lower productivity (£665m or 26%) with presenteeism also a major factor. This is dwarfed by the £45bn cost of poor mental health to employers which came out of the 2020 Thriving at Work report by Deloitte. This highlights the true cost of poor mental health on business recognising it as a society-wide issue and economic issue.

Thus, tackling loneliness and supporting employees to build social connections makes good business sense as it helps employers ensure a more productive and resilient workforce. What is your organisation doing to tackle this problem?