October saw the publication of “Thriving at work: The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers” (the Stevenson Farmer report), which took a broad look at the role of the workplace in helping improve mental health in the UK. In amongst the report’s 40 recommendations for employers, Government, trade bodies, regulators and a host of others, were familiar messages about presenteeism.

The Stevenson Farmer report estimates the cost of presenteeism caused by poor mental health to employers is £17bn to £26bn per year, far more significant than the estimated £8bn cost of absenteeism each year.[1] Our own research on presenteeism can shed some light on this discrepancy: employees are only as likely to take time off work for a stress-related illness as they would for a migraine (20% of respondents), and the same proportion are more likely to come into work when unwell with a mental health problem rather than a physical health one.[2]

We have been researching presenteeism annually for the past five years, and have seen little to no improvement in its prevalence among the workforce. Presenteeism is bad for productivity, and much has been made of the productivity crisis in the UK, which wallows 19% below the average for the other six G7 nations. With such staggering costs to employers, and the knock-on effect on the wider economy, tackling presenteeism is an obvious piece in the productivity puzzle. The reasons for presenteeism are largely cultural, so reducing its impact requires bold leadership and change from the senior levels of businesses.

Group Income Protection (GIP) and Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) providers are both called out specifically in the Stevenson Farmer report as being in a position of influence. Virtually every GIP policy in the UK comes with a fully featured EAP, putting the product front and centre in the search for solutions to weak productivity and anaemic economic growth following the 2007 financial crash. There is a growing body of evidence to show that access to counselling services, talking therapies and Early Intervention Services keep employees in work when they may otherwise take time off ill, and shorten many absences when they cannot be avoided, especially in cases of mental ill health.

There are only around 17,000 GIP policies in the UK, though. With presenteeism due to poor mental health costing two to three times as much per year as absenteeism, this under-utilisation of the product borders on the unbelievable. The accumulated expertise of GIP providers can be leveraged to assist in the implementation of the mental health core and enhanced standards detailed in the Stevenson Farmer report. Outside of the recommendation for the insurance industry to consider ways to reward small and medium-sized employers who put preventative measures in place to protect the mental health of their employees, we need to get better at communicating our proposition and the value it can add in this growing area of importance.

This means we need to put a compelling case for GIP in front of benefits managers and convince them it is worth their time to investigate for themselves and their colleagues. The benefits are there, but there is more we need to do to articulate that value message to a wider audience, and to lobby Government to simplify the interactions between GIP and State benefits without penalising claimants. With the rising profile of the product in Parliament, and the role it can play in alleviating some of the most pernicious issues facing the national economy, there has never been a better time to make our collective voice heard.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/654514/thriving-at-work-stevenson-farmer-review.pdf – page 24

[2] Canada Life presenteeism research, Q3 2017