Big talking point: Supporting our mental health

Coronavirus raises important questions about how we look after our mental health in a time of social distancing and self-isolation. With one in four people worldwide suffering from a mental disorder at some point in their lives, and as mental health week approaches, what can recruiters – as employers and as advisers – do to help?

People across the UK are falling sick and the NHS is struggling to diagnose or treat them. Many try to hide their symptoms, fearing the reactions of others, or lost work and income. Hiding it generally makes it worse. Sadly, if not treated, it can be fatal. The solution, unlike for Covid-19, is definitely not self-isolation. Poor mental health is one of the biggest challenges faced by society, the NHS, and the workplace. The coronavirus pandemic has raised important questions about how we can look after the mental health of ourselves and each other, especially older and vulnerable people.

In January, when the virus was still largely confined to one region of China, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Index for 2020 predicted that non-infectious illnesses were more of a threat today than infectious ones. Last year there were many indications that the UK’s mental health medical provisions were under strain and, often, inadequate. The coronavirus demonstrates that, while governments, scientists, doctors and society rally to deal with a physical disease emergency, long-term conditions, particularly mental illnesses, rarely attract such attention.

Employers need to do as much as they can to support employees who are struggling with mental health conditions. This is essential at a time when medical provision is often available only for the most acute mental health problems, and the national focus is on dealing with a pandemic. And, of course, drastic social and economic measures, fear of infection, social distancing policies, increased working from home and other consequences of the virus will all compound many mental health conditions.

Good mental health is good for business

And while coronavirus is putting many businesses and livelihoods at risk, mental illness also has a business cost. According to a recent report by Deloitte, UK poor mental health costs employers £45bn a year, a rise of £6bn a year since 2016. The OECD puts the figure higher at £94bn a year

No demographic is ‘safe’ – in fact, young people appear to be particularly vulnerable. Research shows that employers lose the equivalent of 8.3% of the salaries of those aged 18-29 as a result of poor mental health. Young people are less likely to disclose mental health problems and more likely to use holiday instead of sick leave.

Moreover, the Covid-19 lockdown is likely to compound mental problems that are affected by isolation and for people who struggle to switch off from the workplace – an issue familiar to recruiters who depend on close personal contacts and being always available on mobile devices.

Mental health in the recruitment industry

Recruitment is already one of the most stressful jobs in the UK, with 81.8% likely to suffer from workplace stress – which is likely to increase in the lockdown.

“Our research finds that, while an increased use of technology can enhance working practices, having the ability to work outside of normal working hours can add to the challenge of maintaining good mental health, and make it hard for some to disconnect from an ‘always-on’ culture,” said Elizabeth Hampson, Partner at Deloitte.

Despite positive changes in workplaces, including greater openness about mental health and more support, costs are climbing. This is attributed largely to a significant rise in mental-health-related ‘presenteeism’, where employees work when they are not at their most productive. Mental-health related absenteeism and staff turnover add to the costs.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) includes mental disorders on its list of work-related illnesses and says that people exposed to chronic stress at work have a significantly higher risk of developing symptoms such as depression or anxiety.

It points to contributing factors such as poor leadership, a lack of input in decision-making and excessive stress, adding that negative experiences at work can lead to isolation and estrangement.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Work can also be a source of mental strength and can contribute to mental wellbeing. “With good leadership and a supportive work environment, work serves as a ‘health resource’ that can help prevent mental illness or make it less common,” the WHO says.

What can recruiters do?

“Smart, forward-thinking employers are investing in staff wellbeing, and those who do tend to save money in the long run,” says Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of mental health charity Mind.

The World Economic Forum agrees. In January, it urged employers to take mental health seriously: “For companies, it is important to proactively support the mental health of employees – not just for economic reasons, but also to ensure inclusion and prevention in the workplace, particularly since some triggers for mental disorders can often be found at work.”

So what can recruiters, as employers and business advisers, do to help? Check out our top tips.

  • Early warnings: create a culture in which people can talk about mental health concerns early, before they become worse. Research indicates that you gain a higher return on investment from early interventions, such as organisation-wide education, than from support once a person is struggling.
  • Reduce ‘presenteeism’: unwell staff who spend time at work not only hurt themselves, but tend to be unproductive. “As presenteeism costs three times more than sick leave, we need to look at supporting employers to change the culture so their staff feel able to take time off when they are unwell,” says Farmer. ‘Leaveism’, where people fail to take holidays is a similar sign of a damaging culture or workload.
  • Invest in health: according to Deloitte, for every £1 spent on supporting mental health, employers get an average of £5 back in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover.
  • Switch off: conscientious staff can struggle to disconnect. Employers should make sure staff are not under pressure to remain connected at all times and that they do not reward behaviour that could prove damaging in the long term.
  • Engage with staff: highly engaged employees seem to struggle less with mental health. Teamworking and a positive workplace culture are important. Individuals should feel able to talk about mental health concerns, but managers and colleagues should also be alert for signs and able to raise concerns in a sympathetic, non-threatening way.
  • Promote inclusion: the WHO makes it clear that people who find their work unchallenging or unstimulating and have little say in decision-making are as at risk as those under constant physical or mental stress. Enabling staff to express opinions and contribute to their environment can help.

The REC has partnered with Punter Southall Health & Protection to create a free guide for members with practical ways to support mental health in the workplace. Download your copy at

£45bn – the cost of poor mental health to employers each year.

$US1trn – the cost of productivity losses caused by mental illnesses to the global economy each year.

8.3% Employers lose the equivalent of 8.3% of the salaries of those aged 18-29 as a result of poor mental health.

3x – ‘presenteeism’ costs three times more than sick leave.

25% of the population worldwide will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives.

50m people in the EU are affected by mental health problems.

65% of British workers say they lose sleep because of stress.

300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their job each year.


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