Ten years ago, Centre for Mental Health published its first estimate of the costs of mental health problems in the UK workforce to employers. We found that across the economy as a whole the business cost of mental ill health amounted to £26 billion, equivalent to £1,000 for every employee in every organisation.
In the decade since, public awareness of mental health has grown considerably. With the arrival of major anti-stigma campaigns such as Time to Change and a growing level of media debate about mental health, it is harder than ever to ignore. Employers big and small have responded to this growing level of awareness: where just a handful of employers ten years ago were prepared to take the mental health of their staff seriously now there are many that are taking steps to engage with the issue.
While awareness is growing and some businesses are taking action to support their workers' wellbeing, however, the costs have continued to rise. In a new analysis, adjusting the previous figure according to changes in the economy and a review of evidence published since 2007, the Centre has updated the cost estimate this year to almost £35 billion nationwide, or £1,300 for each employee. For an organisation with 10 employees, for example, the annual cost would be about £13,000; and for a company with 100 staff it would be £130,000. For the NHS as a whole, this equates to some £1.3 billion nationwide.
As before, more than half of the total cost is accounted for not in sickness absence but in reduced productivity at work among people who are unwell but in the most part not receiving help - known as 'presenteeism'. This largely hidden and frequently unacknowledged phenomenon is double the cost of sickness absence in relation to mental health, partly as a result of people feeling unable to disclose such difficulties to their employers or colleagues.
Mental health problems at work are not just costly for businesses. For individuals and their families, they can lead to a loss of livelihood and income; they can sever social networks; and in the worst case they can bring about many years of social exclusion and poverty.
Taking action to protect mental health at work and support people who experience mental health difficulties can help to avert some of these costs, both to employers and to individuals. While the evidence base about effective approaches to supporting mental health at work remains limited, we know that the risk of work-related mental health difficulties is greater for people with little control over their work environment, who are insecure at work and who face bullying. Employers that try to reduce these risk factors and that have a culture of openness and support to staff experiencing mental health difficulties are likely to reap considerable benefits.
Employers that try to sweep mental health issues under the carpet, that turn a blind eye to bullying or that discriminate on the basis of someone's mental health, risk paying a heavy price.
We now need to move beyond raising awareness of mental health at work to taking action. We need to ensure that working people who experience mental health difficulties are encouraged to seek help quickly and that they get effective support from the NHS when they need it. We need to expand effective employment support for people with mental health problems who are out of work. And we need to create safe environments for people to ask for help without fearing the consequences.