Is it worth the investment? Breaking the taboo on the cost of mental health intervention

By Holly Sutton, Vetfit CEO

 

In a profession where poor mental health feels like a continuous battle, and recruitment and retention are at an all-time low, we are struggling to retain even the freshest minds. 45% of vets who left the RCVS register last year had been practicing for 4 years or less[1]. It’s time to break out of the vicious circle and make positive sustainable change. We all know the question on every leader’s mind though; how much?

 

Assessment of mental health in the workplace is a sensitive issue, and there is often little incentive to publish the economic evaluations out into the public eye. As a result, do we truly understand the cost implications of poor mental health in the workplace? Do we understand the return on investment for providing mental health and wellbeing support? In this article we tie together statistics from the veterinary community and the wider UK workforce, to help piece together an economic analysis. It’s time to break the taboo on the cost of mental health intervention and invest in our teams to help our profession thrive. This isn’t about reinventing the wheel; this is about nurturing it.

 

In the UK alone, there are over 4,000 veterinary practices, 23,000 practicing Veterinary Surgeons, and 14,000 Registered Veterinary Nurses. In the BVA’s Covid-19 survey, 74% of vets were concerned about stress and burnout[2]. That’s over 17,000 members of our profession.

 

1 in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace[3]. YouGov survey data suggests the three main causes to be; too much pressure, workload impacting on ability to take leave, and lack of support[4]. Specific to the veterinary industry, we also report work intensity (pace and volume), duration of working hours, feelings of undervalue by senior staff and/or management, and performance anxiety as being commonly attributed to psychological distress[5]. Interestingly, 41% of employees experiencing a mental health problem in 2019 reported no changes or action taken in the workplace, and 70% of managers said there are barriers to them providing mental health support.[5]. Therefore this data seems to suggest we know these problems exist, yet our leaders do not have the capacity to action support and positive change.

 

How much does this cost our economy? Each year, mental health costs UK employers £45 billion[6]. In 2015, mental health related issues lead to approximately 17.6 million days sick leave, or 12.7% of the total sick leave days taken in the UK[7]. It’s interesting, yet unsurprising to know that 95% of employees calling in sick with stress call in with a different problem[8], and so that 12.7%, is likely to be much higher. For example, in 2019 half of days taken off sick were thought to be due to stress[9]. Even if this figure was 2.5%, is this not a figure worth fighting for?

 

Better still, this figure only represents cases of absenteeism. Presenteeism (the act of being at work but not at full productivity), costs businesses 10x more than absenteeism[10]. In a survey by Virgin Pulse, employees took an average of 4 days off sick per year, in contrast to 57.5 days per employee lost on the job due to presenteeism.[11] In this survey, participants completed a 12 month virtual wellbeing programme which led to improvements in sleep, stress, happiness, and yep, you guessed it; decreased presenteeism rates.

 

London Underground found that their greatest area of sickness absence was due to stress, anxiety, depression, and musculoskeletal disorders. In 2004 they ringfenced funding for a proactive stress reduction programme, as well as counselling programme, back pain programme, and annual health fairs. In the first 2 years of operation, the company avoided costs of employee absence of more than £500,000, yielding a positive return on investment. They rolled out the programme across the entire Transport for London workforce due to its success.[12] So when we throw ‘yeah but how much?’ into the mix, how about we reframe it to ‘how much can we save in the long run?’ Investment in mental health by employers yields a return of £5 for every £1 spent[13], now that’s not a figure to throw under the carpet.

 

Similarly, in 2007, a 600 member UK company rolled out a health promotion programme for employees consisting of an online support programme, and in-person seminars and workshops focusing on wellness issues. Over a 12-month period the company saw reductions in health risk factors, monthly absenteeism days, and an increase in work performance, yielding a positive return on investment[14].

 

On an even smaller scale, in our original Vetfit study we provided a group of 15 non-habitual exercisers with 8 weeks of structured exercise sessions and group development coaching. Over 8 weeks and 6 months post study, we saw significant improvements in psychological wellbeing, work life balance and physical health.[15]

 

Ticking a box when it comes to mental health is not enough. Tackling poor mental health once at breaking point isn’t enough. We need to address the systemic root causes of poor mental health and create work environments that enhance wellbeing and improve productivity.

 

There are many branches to mental health support. One that we focus on at Vetfit is exercise and social support. Participation in regular exercise can:

  • Increase self-esteem[16]
  • Reduce stress and anxiety[17]
  • Prevent development of mental health problems[18]
  • Improve quality of life from those suffering from poor mental health[19]
  • Positively impact mood[20]
  • Improve physical health, such as sleep, and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease[21]
  • Lower risk of, and treat depression[22]

Even 10 minutes of brisk walking increases mental alertness, energy and positive mood[23].

 

We’ve laid out in this piece the cost of mental health on the UK economy, and the return on investment in supporting team wellbeing and mental health. So, to the veterinary industry; we raise you: time to put your money where your mouth is.

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about the support Vetfit can give you and your team, please drop us a line hello@getvetfit.co.uk – we’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

[1] RCVS, 2021. Workforce Summit 2021 – recruitment, retention and return in the veterinary profession.

[2] BCA, Covid-19 Survey, 2020

[3] Lelliott et al, (2008) Mental Health and Work

[4] Mental Health at Work 2019: Time To Take Ownership (2019) https://www.bitc.org.uk/report/mental-health-at-work-2019-time-to-take-ownership/

[5] Vetlife. 2022. Stress, Anxiety and Depression – Vetlife. [online] Available at: <https://www.vetlife.org.uk/mental-health/depression/>

[6] Deloitte, 2020. Mental health and employers – Refreshing the case for investment. pp.1-60.

[7] (ONS (2016), UK Labour Market; July 2016)

[8] Mind, 2013. Populus interviews in England and Wales (2060 adults) https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/work-is-biggest-cause-of-stress-in-peoples-lives/

[9] Health and Safety Executive, Annual Statistics (October 2019).

[10] Deloitte, 2020. Mental health and employers – Refreshing the case for investment. pp.1-60.

[11] Virgin Pulse Global Challenge data. Based on the responses of 1,872 participants who took their scientifically validated survey, benchmarked against the World Health Organization ‘Health and Workplace Performance’ Questionnaire (WHO-HPQ). 2015

[12] Business in the Community (2005). London Underground. Stress Reduction Programme.

[13] Deloitte, 2020. Mental health and employers – Refreshing the case for investment. pp.1-60.

[14] Mills P, Kessler R,Cooper J, Sullivan S (2007) Impact of a health promotion program on employee health risks and work productivity.American Journal of Health Promotion 22:45–53. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17894263/ 

[15] Mays, Rose, et al. (2018). The effect of an eight-week exercise programme on the psychological well-being of a group of self-selected ‘non exercising’ veterinary students.

[16] Alfermann, D. & Stoll, O. (2000). Effects of Physical Exercise on Self-Concept and Wellbeing. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31, 47–65.

[17] Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of Physical Activity on Anxiety, Depression, and Sensitivity to Stress: A Unifying Theory. Clinical Psychology Review, 21 (1), 33–61.

[18] Zschucke, E., Gaudlitz, K. & Strohle, A. (2013). Exercise and Physical Activity in Mental Disorders: Clinical and Experimental Evidence. J Prev Med Public Health, 46 (1), 512–521.

[19] Alexandratos, K., Barnett, F. & Thomas, Y. (2012). The impact of exercise on the mental health and quality of life of people with severe mental illness: a critical review. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 75 (2), 48–60.

[20] Penedo, F.J. & Dahn, J.R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 18 (2), 189–193.

[21] PENGPID S, PELTZER, K. (2018) Vigorous physical activity, perceived stress, sleep and mental health among university students from 23 low- and middle-income countries. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health.  pii: /j/ijamh.ahead-of-print/ijamh-2017-0116/ijamh-2017-0116.xml. doi: 10.1515/ijamh-2017-0116

[22] Department of Health (2001). “Exercise Referral Systems: A National Quality Assurance Framework.” Available at: http://bit.ly/1N31ONs [Accessed on 04/11/15].

[23] Ekkekakis, P., Hall, E.E., Van Landuyt, L.M. & Petruzzello, S. (2000). Walking in (affective) circles: Can short walks enhance affect? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23 (3), 245–275.

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