Sectors that made a wholesale pivot to home working during the pandemic experienced much sharper increases in mental ill health absence, research has argued.
This has suggested the isolation, disconnection and potential blurring of home and work may have had a significant mental health impact on those workers who suddenly found themselves working from home at the height of the pandemic.
Data from employee relations firm AdviserPlus from 250,000 employees working across four sectors – retail, financial, utilities and health – was analysed across the period of the pandemic and compared to the year prior to the arrival of Covid-19.
This found increases in mental health absences were far higher in the financial services sector, which made a wholesale change to home working, than the others being analysed.
Financial services saw a 72% increase in the percentage of mental health absences recorded compared with the situation pre pandemic.
Mental health absences were still up within the retail, health and utilities sectors (17% for both retail and health and 25% for utilities) but the increases were not nearly as high.
Across the board, 37% of hours lost to sickness absence were because of mental health-related causes, the data also highlighted, up from 28% before the pandemic, the analysis suggested.
Home working and health
Richard Little, analytics team manager at AdviserPlus, said: “Regardless of sector, mental health absence has increased as a percentage of total sickness absence.
“However, the data suggests that those who have working environments closer to pre-pandemic times have been less affected. Within the finance sector, for example, where employees went from office work to home working, we’re seeing far higher levels of reported mental health absences.
“In many ways, working from home has been positive. But there are feelings of isolation and disconnection that can negatively impact workers who are not used to or enabled to work effectively when remote,” he added.
Separately, more than seven out of 10 UK employees say they have “pushed through” a mental health struggle in the past three months to avoid taking time off work.
According to a report by BetterUp Labs, the research division of mental fitness and virtual professional coaching firm BetterUp, more than half (59%) of 1,421 working adults polled also said they’d had to push through a physical health struggle
This suggested there was widespread hesitation about stepping away from work to take time to recover, BetterUp has argued.
The poll found that more than a quarter (26%) of respondents have or have had a mental health condition, with 30% of women and 21% of men reporting this.
Young people said they felt the need to push through mental health struggles more often than older generations.
A total of 85% of 18-24-year-olds and 78% of 25-34-year-olds reported having to do this, compared with less than half of the 55+ group.
Erin Eatough, manager of behavioural science and lead researcher at BetterUp Labs, said: “The fact that the majority (71%) of respondents have pushed through psychological struggle shows there’s still a long way to go to dispel the stigma attached to mental health conversations.
“And it’s unfortunate that more than half of people who took time off for mental health reasons felt the need to use a different excuse. Mental health is health, and this ‘covering’ behaviour demonstrates that there’s work to be done to normalise both reactive and preventative mental health self-care.
“Employers need to build a compassionate, inclusive environment where people feel they can take the time they need and be up-front and open with management about needing work flexibility, needing to take a break, or a mental health day. This could be done through virtual mentoring sessions and personalised wellbeing plans, which protect their staff from external pressures and give them the tools they need to flourish,” she added.