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Damian Walne
Director, Socio-Economic Centre
Damian Walne

Mental health and sickness absence: A new industrial crisis?

Authors: Damian Walne Damian Walne

28 February 2014

Earlier this week (25th February), the ONS has released its Labour Force Survey statistics on sickness in the labour market. My colleague, Karen Steadman, revealed some of the more interesting findings to what, at first glance, looked like a static set of numbers.

The statistic that stood out for me was that in 2013, an estimated 15.2 million working days were lost through “stress, anxiety, and depression”. That is up from 11.8 million in 2010. For more “serious mental health problems”, the number of lost working days had increased to 1 million.

There are difficulties with the survey data here. People may not accurately diagnose their own mental health. The recent increases may partly reflect better awareness of mental health issues. The data is on absences from work and so only tells us about those people in employment. It does not tell us about mental health for people who are unemployed or economically inactive.

But I wondered how the total number of working days lost through mental health compared with another source of lost working days - days lost through industrial disputes. The contrast is striking...

In 2012, only 249,000 working days were lost through industrial action. That is a fraction of the working days lost in a year through mental health reasons. The last time over 15 million working days were lost through labour disputes was in the industrial crises of the 1970s and early 1980s. These were the years of the miners’ strikes (24 million lost days in 1972 and 27 million lost days in 1984) and the year of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (29 million lost days in 1979).

The policymakers of that time responded with a determination to end industrial strife and reduce the influence of trades unions. But how many million of lost working days would it take for mental health to become such a high political priority? The Government’s recent “Closing the Gap” paper was a welcome step but it had too little to say about addressing the economic costs of poor mental health.