Poor mental health blights lives. And yet, whether it’s the number of people affected or the state of our mental health services, things just seem to get worse, at least according to the headlines. Poor mental health affects individuals, but it also causes damage more widely, including to the economy and society as a whole. Mental ill-health is one of the main reasons for absence at work, perhaps costing UK businesses around £35 billion a year. It is vital that people experiencing mental health problems get the care and treatment they need. But any long-term mental health strategy needs to be proactive as well as reactive. Promotion of healthy lifestyles and the prevention of ill health is a fundamental principle behind public health. We need to make mental health and wellbeing a priority for all.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as ‘a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’
In other words, mental health matters because it affects everything – our quality of life, how we live our daily lives, our friendships, how well we cope with life’s ups and downs, our capacity for work, our ability to play a part in the community and to lead a fulfilling life. Good mental health is also good for our physical health – and of course the reverse is also true.
There were two important reports published in 2022 on the future of education – one by the Times Education Commission and one by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Both reports emphasised the need to look to the future. “Your education today is your economy tomorrow,” is a quote that leaps out from the page of the chapter in the Times report called The Purpose of Education. They of course mean ensuring that we are giving young people the skills they will need to meet the needs of businesses in the decades ahead and drive future prosperity.
But there is also another sense in which we need our young people to be ready for work.
Goodshape is an absence-management company. They refer to themselves as the “wellbeing and performance experts” and offer their services to support businesses to “transform the way they manage employee wellbeing”. According to their UK PLC 2021 Workforce Health Report, poor mental health was the top reason for time off work in 2021, accounting for 19% of all lost working time across the country. The report also found that 54% of workers who take two or more mental health-related absences will go on to leave their jobs.
It is only one report, of course, but Goodshape claim to have the biggest workplace database, with more than 1.2 billion data points and a Deloitte quality rating of 96%. The Office for National Statistics suggests that mental ill-health accounted for about 10% of absence in 2021.
According to the St John Ambulance website, mental illness costs UK businesses around £35 billion a year – £10.6 billion in sickness absence, £21.2 billion in reduced productivity, and £3.1 billion in substituting staff members who vacate their roles due to mental illness.
It is often said that mental health is not the same thing as the absence of a mental illness. Making mental health and wellbeing a priority for all will benefit each of us as individuals. But it will also benefit the economy and it will benefit communities and society as a whole.
There are many factors that affect mental health of course – there was a report just this week that the cost-of-living crisis is damaging the mental health of nearly half of adults in the UK – but an ambitious and coordinated effort to encourage and support people to lead healthy lifestyles will make a huge difference to the nation’s mental wellbeing. But we need to make it a priority, not just an add-on or an afterthought.
That’s why we need a long-term strategy, one that starts with children, supporting them as they grow to become happy, balanced and emotionally resilient adults, better able to lead a fulfilling life, weather life’s many storms and contribute productively to the economy and to society. Today’s children, after all, are tomorrow’s adults – and tomorrow’s workforce.
LBL advocates teaching children from an early age about their emotions and how to manage them, much improving their chances of growing up happy, comfortable in themselves and emotionally resilient. They also need to have free and regular access to activities that promote good mental health.
Making physical activity fun for young people, offering them plenty of choice and involving them in the design and delivery of physical activity programmes – for example, by making them a part of curriculum decision-making processes in schools – will all help promote physical literacy and mental wellbeing.
Our blogs regularly highlight the benefits to children’s mental health and wellbeing of regular physical exercise, outdoor and nature-based experiences and participation in activities that involve them in positive change.