So what can we do locally to tackle this problem?
It has long been the case that the productivity of our businesses across this region have been well below both the regional and national averages.
The gap in general productivity is around 10% below the average across Devon (with Exeter achieving the highest output rates). As a region, however, we are at least 10% below the national average.
In 2022, the UK came fourth highest out of the G7 countries, with Germany and the US being around 15% ahead but higher than Japan. These figures mean that we are on average working nearly an extra day per week to achieve the same outcomes as higher performing countries.
These lower productivity rates are generally attributed to low levels of investment and skills gaps. In Northern Devon these problems are compounded by a lack of primary infrastructure, distance to market and fragile supply chains.
A new factor has however now emerged as a powerful reason why productivity outputs remain stubbornly low, this relates to mental health at work. The statistical figures make interesting reading. There is a sliding scale that shows that mental health problems result in a loss of productivity of at least 4 minutes per working day, but significantly increasing against the degree of the health problem. A greater impact is also the days lost. In certain institutions the sickness rate can be terrifyingly high. There is one South West Local Authority where they lose 13 days per year, across their entire workforce, for stress related illnesses.
The reason why this matter has now been recognised, is largely because of Covid. The whole question of attendance at work has been thrown into the air. It looks as though it will settle with a hybrid solution of three days at work and two days working from home. There is a slight irony in that Zoom have just ordered their entire workforce to return to their office and that they will no longer support home working.
We should recognise that mental health is a separate issue from long Covid. Many of the characteristics are confusingly similar but there are at least 1.5 million people of working age who suffer this appalling affliction. Many of these require a carer to support them.
The statistics which are now emerging illustrate the scale of this problem. The cost to government of mental health problems is estimated at £16 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. This is made up from the extra welfare payments made and forgone tax revenues. The overall number of those absent from work for a variety of reasons is just over 6 million, which is an increase of 23% over the last 10 years.
Within these numbers, 53% who are inactive and suffering from long term sickness had depression. Disturbingly only 43% of UK workers have access to occupational health services. In the first 3 months of this year 4.3 million sick notes were signed. The overall financial implications of this are eye wateringly large. It is currently estimated that £53 billion is spent on sickness and disability benefits. This is likely to rise to £69 billion by 2027.
What these figures do not take account of is the loss to the businesses themselves. They are suffering lower outcomes, lower levels of profitability, they are less competitive as a result. They also have less ability to invest for the future including exploring new markets, introducing new products, expanding into international markets, undertaking research and development and investing in the development of improved skills or bringing forward apprentices and/ or trainees.
The government have finally got a grip on this issue. Many would say, too little and too late. The Chancellor – Jeremy Hunt – and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – Mel Stride – are now looking hard at this problem, partly to improve business productivity but also to try and stop the spiralling costs of benefit payments. It is also clear that, in addition to these problems, this issue is fuelling the current labour market shortages.
Mel Stride is working up a package of initiatives to bring about improvements. These are likely to include tax breaks, subsidies for work-based occupational health services and better links between Doctors and occupational support services. A statement is likely to be issued around November this year on what these proposals might comprise.
So what can we do locally to tackle this problem? The first thing is to recognise that it is a problem. To often, this is not discussed. Employers could easily introduce mentors who would be able to discreetly help colleagues suffering problems. More direct help could also be introduced, with work based occupational health care. These simple interventions could dramatically improve the necessary outcomes and achieve improvements to welfare at work. It is important to recognise that Northern Devon also has a unique partnership known as One Northern Devon.
This comprises around 25 different healthcare providers working together to achieve local solutions, under the general heading of social prescribing. It is worth looking up the excellent web pages for the various Towns who have adopted this model, such as, “ONE Ilfracombe”. There are already teams on the ground who are doing ground breaking work. This proved to be invaluable during Covid. It is now a relatively simple exercise to extend these initiatives into the workplace. Employers however need to recognise and respond to these challenges.
Given a collective effort, Northern Devon could be a market leader in reducing the impact of mental health problems at work.