How mentally and physically healthy is your business?

Mental Health Awareness month

An employer brand and an employer’s attitude to mental health are linked. And it’s about to get more important for employers to pay attention and take action.

In the wake of Sunak’s ‘sicknote culture’ stance, more than ever employers need to take wellbeing into their own hands.

In 2018, the UK government introduced a voluntary framework for reporting information on disability, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

There are two problems with it: it’s voluntary and it’s not benchmarked.

One thing we do know is that employees are attracted to an employer brand that take this issue seriously.

There’s a plethora of mental health indices in place – WHO, Mind, as well as the big health insurance companies all have them. They all differ slightly, so getting a benchmark is tough.

What we do know is that across the eurozone employees reporting problems with mental health at work is flat or declining.

Poland is by far the worst country recently surveyed, with 50% of workers saying they feel anxious. The UK was recently labelled the ‘sick man’ of Europe, with the British Psychological Society proclaiming burnout at work an epidemic.

But, it’s noticeable that sickness due to mental health is stabilizing or falling.

Unsurprisingly, 2020 proved to be the low point for mental health in the UK with 9.8% of men 13.1% of women absent from work due to mental health.

That has fallen to 6.4% for men (the lowest since 2017) and 9.7% for women. You have to go back to 2010 and 2009 for the lowest scores recorded (4.9% and 7.8% respectively.)

It’s true to say that since the ONS began tracking records on absence from work due to mental health, the indices have been trending upwards.

One recent report put the UK at the bottom of the pile for mental health. It scored 49, a long way off the leader – the Dominican Republic – seventy places above it.


mental health in business


Talk about it

Look at the Netherlands. The BBC recently reported that the Netherlands is one of the best countries in Europe for work life balance.

Two in every five (39 per cent) of employees in the Netherlands are comfortable asking their boss for time off work for mental health reasons – that’s 20 per cent higher than elsewhere in Europe.

Its Mental Health Index score sits at 69 – eight per cent above the average through Europe. And its productivity rates are 11 per cent higher than the European average.

Put simply, the Dutch are learning to talk about it and deal with it.

Mental health absence alone costs the global economy around $1trillion every year, so talking about mental health – getting people mentally fit – makes a massive difference to the bottom line as well as to the individual.

Are the existing mental health initiatives working?

The data would suggest no, but we’re living in times of greater stress.

Not only is the doomsday clock closer to midnight than it has ever been before (see Ukraine, Iran/Israel and North Korea), but the world is coming off the back of COVID and the paranoia that it has instilled in us, and we’re getting far better at self-reporting.

The government’s 2018 framework is good, but that needs to be more rigorously monitored so that workplace policy can change to positively affect outcomes.

This is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s about productivity for UK PLC. And productivity needs to be about more than just growth.

It’s no surprise that cities in the Netherlands are among the first to embrace ‘Doughnut Economics’. Kate Raworth, author of the hole-shaped model, makes clear that growth can’t be the only output.

In fact, it can’t be about growth at all. That’s simply not sustainable. It needs to be about how we all thrive.

Perhaps that’s why NatWest put the word at the heart of its post-COVID all employee event?

Perhaps it’s why Coutts, its wholly owned bank was the first to realise B-Corps status. I’m not saying the bank is dropping a commitment to growth, but I note that it’s purpose is all about ‘championing potential’ and not making money.

Sustainable business needs to be measured by profit, sustainability, and their net-contribution to the planet and society.

Part of that is making sure we have a healthy and happy bunch of workers and citizens. And we know happy workers are more inventive and productive.

If we’re going to find our way out of the malaise that we’re creating for ourselves, then we need that mindset in the workplaces. And to do that, we need a healthy workforce.

Performance and health

Businesses are rushing to secure B-Corps status. They’re doing so in order to grab the badge so that they can prove their ESG credentials to governments and customers.

I wish they’d focus on securing it as an outcome to creating happier and more fulfilling workplaces.

In Portugal, the international food group Jerónimo Martins has made a clear promise to its people: true care for people.

Amongst other initiatives, it has invested over £1 million in mental health programmes. I wonder if there is a link between that and the record sales recorded in 2023.

And there is a link to physical health.

In the UK the Sleep Charity estimates that 40% of us suffer from sleep deprivation.

That deprivation leads to fatigue and anxiety which further fuels problems with mental health. And our sleep is very much determined by what we eat.

Foods high in sugar, salt, saturated fats, all these contribute to poor sleep. And a cursory look around the next convenience store you walk into will show that these are heavily marketed at us.

It’s physical and mental health

The more employers can offer and encourage healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, the more employees will be able to combat things like sleep problems.

Is this the employer crossing over into the world of the State?

Is it crossing lines? Maybe.

But it’s a matter of whether the employer wants a fit and healthy workforce.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is all about ‘Movement’.

As they say on their website, “Going for a walk in your neighbourhood, putting on your favourite music and dancing around the living room, chair exercises when you’re watching television – it all counts!”

Globally, poor mental health costs the economy about a trillion dollars a year.

Businesses that attempt to force workers to struggle on through poor mental health will make this figure worse and fail to be competitive long-term.

According to ONS data, in the UK between 1997 and 2009 the number of days lost per worker due to long term health conditions dropped by 37%. Since 2010, that figure has not shifted.

Rather than seek to understand why, it would appear that Sunak wishes to pin a decade’s failure of policy and inaction on the most vulnerable.

He’s resorting to simply wishing this problem away.

I don’t believe employers will do the same thing. As with global warming, they’ll need to rise to the problem where political leaders have failed.

Rishi Sunak recently announced plans for employers – rather than doctors – to issue mental health sick notes, arguing that we are “over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life”.

It’s attracted widespread criticism, with many rightly pointing to the damaging effect this could have on the least advantaged, chronically ill and disabled.

If Sunak’s proposals do become law, then the Dutch model is one that companies should look to.

They should be responsible, and to think more diversely about the concept of health, work, and life.

Not only will employees thank them, it will pay dividends.