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Inside the Business Barometer with Anton Nebbe

Anton Nebbe, Head of PR at Close Brothers Asset Finance and Leasing, manages our Business Barometer - and decides which questions to ask. 

Every quarter here at Close Brothers Asset Finance and Leasing we survey around 1,000 UK and Ireland SMEs, asking them a comprehensive list of questions you’d expect from a firm like ours ranging from the usual set ones (think current economic outlook and forecasts, and you get the idea) to a few that might surprise you.

Because what we also do is ask a series of themed questions on topical issues, which can include mental health, the environment, Brexit and others. The reason we do this is because, frankly, it’s interesting and I’m a bit of a data nerd, but also because it keeps us up-to-date on what small and medium sized business owners, who make up the majority of our customer base, are thinking.

In this piece, I’ll focus on the first of the thematic questions – mental ill health – and play back the results, providing an element of analysis, where relevant, and attempt to figure out what the data is telling us.

1. Have you or any of your employees taken days off in the past 12 months due to mental ill health?

The answer to this question is that, taken as a whole, 4 in every 10 firms across the UK and Ireland confirmed that someone in their business had taken sick leave because of mental ill health over the past year. This figure reflects those of the Mental Health Foundation, whose research established that 43% of adults think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life (35% of men and 51% of women). A fifth of men and a third of women have had diagnoses confirmed by professionals.

Notable exceptions to this statistic is businesses with 10 or fewer employees, where the ‘time off’ figures drops to 20%. While a smaller figure, it’s not hard to imagine that the impact is disproportionally large – these firms don’t have access to the sort of cover large businesses take for granted.

From a pence and pounds perspective, the 2013 Chief Medical Officer’s report estimated that the wider costs of mental ill health to the UK economy are up to £100 billion per year. An earlier study carried out by the Centre for Mental Health found that, taking into account reduced quality of life, the annual costs in England alone were £105.2 billion.

2. Has your organisation taken steps to raise awareness amongst your employees about mental health issues?

According to mental health charity, Mind, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. In England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week.

This makes raising both the profile and understanding of mental ill health critical to the UK’s mental wellbeing. Overall, 55% of businesses who took part in the survey said that they have actively worked to raise awareness of mental ill health among employees. Unsurprisingly, this figure rises along with the size of the business.

3. Does your company have a mental health policy?

‘Policy’ is, admittedly, a relatively broad term, but as someone who runs a boxing club outside of work, I’ve realised it’s fairly easy to get hold of templates to help guide you through the process of creating one. I’ll be honest - to begin with, I didn’t see the value in having them – we’re only a small community club staffed by volunteers, after all – but there have been instances where they’ve proved useful – and not just as a backside-covering exercise.  They provide a framework for both businesses and employees and are a good reference tool – and if you’re applying for funding, most investors expect you to have certain policies in place before handing over any money.

Nearly half (47%) of SMEs tell us they have a mental health policy in place, with a further 10% saying the wheels are in motion to get one implemented, which is clearly encouraging. In London, this rises to 72%.

And again, the smaller the firm, the less likely it is that they’ll have a policy in place.

Only 6% don’t feel it’s necessary with a further 2% unclear how to go about putting one in place.

4. Has your company seen an increase in the number of employees reporting mental health issues in the last three years?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this question but it proved pretty insightful and closely mirrored the question one’s results, with 38% of firms answering ‘yes’.

So what’s it saying? In some respects, it’s telling us that the reporting of mental ill health is not as ‘new’ as we perhaps thought it would be and has been seeing an increase, particularly in London, where the figure rises to 63%. 

The message from this data is a positive one – mental ill health is becoming as recognised as physical ill health as a reason for absence and firms are increasingly set-up to help and support their employees with - and through - the issues they are dealing with.

But make no mistake – this is a complex area – and much work still needs to be done before all organisations are fully equipped to deal with their employees’ mental ill health issues. As with physical health, organisations will need to rely on, and work with, the medical profession to guide them. For example, what’s the right amount of time to allow off for depression, anxiety and others?

While it might not be easy, it’s necessary.

5. Have attitudes about mental ill health, in your opinion, changed among your workforce?

Overall, positive responses to this question, with:

  • 45% saying attitudes have changed for the better
  • 37% saying attitudes are the same as they’ve always been (mix of positive & negative)
  • 7% saying they’ve changed for the worse

Reassuringly, the traditionally male-dominated professions all trended above the UK average:

  • Construction: 49%           
  • Engineering: 51%             
  • Manufacturing: 56%       
  • Transport & Haulage: 46%