Sickness Surge – are we at the start or the end of something?
By Jane Sparrow
Published: October 9, 2023

The figure is stark. We have just hit a period in the UK where workplace sickness is at a ten year high. But, compared to 2013, there’s a significant difference  – mental ill health has more than doubled as a reason for time off – going from around 15 percent to more than 39 percent. And that’s just for short-term sickness. 

It raises far more questions than answers, and can suggest a number of positives and negatives. On the plus side, people are clearly far more comfortable voicing when they are suffering from mental ill health… but on the negative, the numbers are SO high. I’m also left pondering whether or not we are cresting a wave here, or still on an upward trajectory.

Stress is also a major reason for time off, with three quarters of people saying they took time off because of it in the last year. It’s not a rosy picture – people under immense pressure, and not in the right mental frame of mind to cope. It’s hardly surprising – I’m struggling to think of any good news of significance that’s broken in the last few years. Life feels like a stormy sea at the moment – we conquered COVID and then went into a rapid slide of bad news, world instability and a cost of living crisis. Oh, and, the world is now boiling.

I know, cheery stuff. On the more positive side, the question is “What can we do?”. Lots is the short answer. If you are a leader in an organisation (from the sharp end right through to the Board) you can immediately improve things – note, I don’t say ‘fix’ – these issues are knotty and deep seated. But you should start:

  1. Creating more dialogue, time and support to help people work through mental ill health. Lots of organisations now have Mental Health First Aiders, and these are crucial. They can also give you a clear steer on what contributory factors exist, and where people need extra support, understanding or change to make life that bit easier.
  2. Recognising that, often, absence isn’t because of sickness. People are trying to fit life and work together, and they don’t always marry up. For a short, glorious, moment the balance changed when we were pushed out of the workplace by the pandemic, but we are back to people having to ‘sneak around’ to make their life work. Give people more flex, and recognise that ‘when’ not ‘where’ is a bigger topic for many people.
  3. Doing all you can to create a place people want to be. This is the big one, but it’s also the only sustainable fix. If your workplace is dull, low-energy, toxic, siloed and over-pressured, then IT WILL MAKE PEOPLE ILL. If you are ticking any of these boxes, then here’s a clear wake-up call – you need to change your culture. And that’s a big, big topic – come and talk further if you are in this category.

I’ve limited the list to three things – get started, don’t sit in decision paralysis. We have a whole heap more as part of our response to the need for individuals and teams to be healthy, productive and included. We built The Bank of MeTM as a way of providing practical support, tools and conversations that go some way to fight the challenges that people are facing, and turn the tide of sickness that we are seeing. 

Some of the causes of mental ill health are beyond our control. But we can really influence our mental wellbeing at work by developing good habits. The Bank of Me book, is jam packed with ideas. But to help you take the first steps, here are some starters:

  • Share your good habit goals – reach out and talk to someone, get a buddy or look for support groups or classes. Tell a friend or colleague about your plan, which might be your intention to eat more healthily
  • One thing at a time – don’t bite off more than you can chew. Conquer one habit, say a lunchtime walk, then move onto the next
  • Don’t encourage failure – a positive, can-do attitude will get you there. It’s about having a clear understanding of why you are trying to change, what and how
  • Anticipate the occasional failure – you will skip an after-work yoga class, you will eat that occasional iced bun. Go easy on yourself, it’s part of the process
  • Keep going, keep going – on average it takes 66 repetitions to establish a habit, so do not give up. A little grit and determination will get you there

Tomorrow (10 October) is World Mental Health Day, the annual hook for news features and survey report publications. But surely we must be thinking and, yes, talking about our mental health every day of the year. Safeguarding our own wellbeing, and that of our friends, family and co-workers, must come first. To put it plainly, without it, we have very little.

And, to answer my own question, I believe we are going to see figures rise, not fall in this area for some time.