Mental health challenges rise for SMEs worldwide, survey finds

Peninsula Group's research reveals a 140% increase in mental health struggles among SMEs globally

Mental health challenges rise for SMEs worldwide, survey finds

New research from Peninsula Group highlights the significant impact of mental health on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).  

The research surveyed 79,000 businesses across Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. They found a 140 percent year-on-year increase in the number of employers struggling to manage poor mental health in their workforce.   

“Mental health is now the leading cause of absence, with an estimated 17.1 million days lost to mental health in the UK alone. We wanted to understand more about the pressures that SME owners are under and the real-life impact this epidemic is having on businesses around the world,” said Alan Price, chief operations officer of Peninsula Group.   

Price points out that the Lancet Commission estimates the global cost of mental health to businesses will reach $16tn by 2030. He stresses the importance of employers taking mental health seriously, noting that healthy employees contribute to healthy workplaces.

He finds it encouraging that many employers feel comfortable discussing their own and their employees' mental health. Price adds, “SMEs around the world are under pressure like never before, and the impact this has cannot be underestimated.”   

With increased pressure on traditional health services, more businesses are turning to Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) to provide meaningful and immediate support to their employees.  

These programmes, with an average ROI of 10:1, are seen as an affordable and financially viable way to offer support. Price highlights a 24 percent year-on-year increase in the number of employers using the company EAP when they themselves are struggling.   

“There is still work to be done to ensure that global workplaces are healthy and happy, both physically and mentally, but it’s clear that progress is being made,” Price says.  

He underscores the importance of people speaking about mental health concerns and the shift in workplace attitudes as major steps in the right direction.   

The research reveals several key findings. There has been a 30 percent increase in the number of employers experiencing poor mental health. Canadian employers are three times more likely to take time off work due to mental health than UK bosses and twice as likely as Irish employers.  

Mental health-related sickness absence has increased by 20 percent over the past 12 months, with Australia experiencing a 43 percent increase year-on-year.  

Additionally, 40 percent more employers are now offering support for mental health, and the number of SMEs with mental health first aiders in place has risen by 63 percent.   

Despite the positive trends, employers in the UK and Ireland are not prioritising work/life balance as much as before, as efforts to bring employees back into the workplace full-time continue.  

In contrast, the importance of work/life balance has increased by at least 50 percent across Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.   

Canadian and Kiwi employers are most likely to offer mental health days in addition to personal leave entitlements. In comparison, 83 percent of employers in the UK, 83 percent in Ireland, and 77 percent in Australia do not offer mental health days or plan to introduce them within the next 12 months.  

While 'duvet days' generate headlines, most SMEs do not view them as a solution to mental health concerns. Differences in annual leave entitlements across countries contribute to these attitudes.  

Workers in the UK are entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid annual leave, while in Canada, the standard is between two and three weeks. As a result, Canadian employers are almost four times as likely to offer additional mental health days compared to UK employers.  

In New Zealand, 20 percent of employers offer mental health days in addition to the four weeks' annual leave entitlement, with another 16 percent planning to introduce them in the next year.   

The percentage of SME owners and managers prioritising work/life balance has decreased in the UK and Ireland, while it has increased by at least 50 percent in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. 

Globally, there has been a 66 percent year-on-year increase in the number of businesses introducing mental health first aiders to the workplace, with Ireland seeing an 86 percent increase.  

Forty percent of UK businesses have introduced more support measures, and 20 percent have mental health first aiders in place, which is double the rate of other surveyed countries.  

Significant progress has also been made in Canada and Australia, with a 52 percent year-on-year increase in Australian businesses providing mental health first aiders and a 76 percent increase in support measures across Canadian workplaces.   

However, the research also reveals that when employees speak out about their mental health, one in three reports that nothing is done.  

One respondent commented, “Whilst I am confident supporting employees, I am not confident raising issues I personally have. As a long-tenured manager, I feel my needs are overlooked or brushed over, while support and adjustments are offered to younger colleagues.”   

The survey found that mental health-related absence rose by 21 percent globally over the past year, with significant increases in Canada and Australia. However, the UK and Ireland reported a decrease in sickness absence year-on-year, potentially indicating a rise in presenteeism.