We are underestimating the scale of Britain’s mental health challenge

Ann Brown
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Many are afraid that it could be seen as a weakness if they admit to not coping (Source: Getty)

An estimated 137m working days were lost to illness or injury in the UK last year; that’s around four days per worker. This figure may sound huge but it is actually the lowest documented since records began in 1933.

While it is good news that the number is declining, I question whether these statistics give a true reflection of the health of the UK workforce. For those who are suffering from poor mental health, it may be easier to pass absences off as a minor ailment such as a cold, or to struggle into the office in order to avoid an awkward encounter with a manager. When considering mental health alongside physical health, these figures should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt.

Mental health issues are generally much harder to identify than declining physical health for a number of reasons, and are often referred to as “hidden illnesses”. Individuals may not be ready to acknowledge that there is a problem due to the stigma that is still attached to poor mental health. Many are afraid that it could be seen as a “weakness” if they admit to not coping or feeling anxiety or stress, even though at some point most people will find themselves struggling with some aspect of their lives.

Read more: The City ramps up drive to shift attitudes on mental health at work

But I do believe that the situation is improving, and I have seen individuals becoming more open to discussing their health issues, both physical and mental. Annual events such as Mental Health Awareness Week, taking place this week, play no small part in bringing the subject to the forefront of people’s minds.

Good mental health is more than just an absence of a defined or diagnosed mental health problem, and it really needs to be worked at to ensure that we are all functioning as the best version of ourselves. The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year is “surviving or thriving”, and I am sure many of us have experienced periods where we have felt we have been simply surviving, coping, or just getting by.

Too few of us are thriving with good mental health. This is especially prominent in the workplace, where the pressures of a high performing culture require a sustained level of commitment that can result in experiences of stress and other related mental ill health issues.

Advances in technology are constantly increasing the ways in which individuals are able to communicate with each other. The pressure to be “always on” can be immense, and it has never been more important to make the effort to switch off and put the focus back on yourself.

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At KPMG, health is a big thing. We want to help our colleagues to thrive both in and outside of the workplace whenever possible, and also to survive and recover when they are not well. We are running awareness and training courses this week on the topic of Stress Awareness and Management for our people leaders, focused on learning about behaviours of stress in high performing work environments, and how to identify and tackle them.

Something as simple as taking an interest in the lives of those you work with, having empathy, and not shying away from asking “are you okay?” can make such a huge difference to those who struggle to thrive in the workplace, but this is something that many people find difficult. Employers have a duty of care to their employees and we must all take responsibility to ensure our colleagues are head to toe healthy for the good of the individual, the organisation and society as a whole.

Encouraging those around us to be more vocal about their personal mental health issues may well see the number of absences due to illness creep up again in the short term. But in order to ensure your workforce is thriving, not just surviving, it is necessary to urge people to be honest about issues affecting them.

Like being on a rollercoaster, you have to experience the climb before the downhill ride, and by putting in the work, training employees to be more mindful, and creating an environment where colleagues can be open about their mental and physical health, we will be one step closer towards creating a wholly thriving workforce.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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