140% increase in SMEs reporting mental health harms their business

mental health

New research from Peninsula Group shows the impact that mental health is having on small and medium-sized businesses.

The global HR, employment law and health & safety consultancy surveyed 79,000 businesses across Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, revealing a 140% increase year-on-year in the number of employers seeing the impact from poor mental health across their workforce.

Alan Price, Peninsula Group Chief Operations Officer, says, “Mental health is now the leading cause of absence, with an estimated 17.1 million days lost to mental health in the UK alone1. We wanted to understand more the pressures that SME owners are under, and the real life impact this epidemic is having on businesses around the world.

“The Lancet Commission estimates that by 2030 the cost to global business from mental health will reach $16 trillion3. So it’s critical that employers take this seriously. Healthy employees make for healthy workplaces, so it’s encouraging to see many employers are comfortable discussing both their own and their employees’ mental health. 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 EAPs to provide meaningful and immediate support to their employees. With an average ROI of 10:12 they are an affordable and financially viable way of offering meaningful support. And it’s good to see bosses leading from the front, with a 24% YoY 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. The willingness of people to speak about mental health concerns and a change in workplace attitude towards them are major steps in the right direction.”

Key findings include:

  • 30% 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; twice as likely as Irish employers
  • Mental health related sickness absence increased 20% in the last 12 months
  • Australia saw the biggest increase YoY, with 43% more employers reporting increased sickness absence than this time last year
  • 40% more employers offer support for mental health
  • 1 in 5 UK SME owners and managers have experienced mental health issues, compared to 1 in 10 last year
  • 63% increase in the number of SMEs with mental health first aiders in place
  • Employers in the UK and IRE are bucking the trend on work/life balance, both countries saw a decrease in the number citing it as a priority

Mental health days

Our data found that Canadian and Kiwi employers are most likely to offer mental health days in addition to personal leave entitlement than any other. In comparison, 83% of employers in the UK, 83% in Ireland, and 77% in Australia do not offer mental health days or plan to introduce them in the next 12 months.

Whilst ‘duvet days’ certainly generate headlines; most SMEs do not believe that they are the answer to addressing mental health concerns. And the results look a lot different when compared to how much annual leave employees in each country get.

Workers in the UK are entitled to 5.6 weeks paid annual leave, whereas in Canada the standard is between 2-3 weeks. So it’s no surprise that Canadian employers are almost 4 times as likely to offer additional mental health days on top of this than UK employers.

Employers in New Zealand are the most generous, with 20% offering mental health days in addition to the four weeks’ annual leave entitlement. Another 16% plan to introduce them in the next 12 months.

Work/life balance

The percentage of SME owners and managers prioritising work/life balance fell in the both the UK and Ireland, as the drive to get people back into the workplace full time continues. However it rose by at least 50% across Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

Employer support

Globally there was a 66% YoY increase in the number of businesses who have introduced mental health first aiders to the workplace, with Ireland seeing an 86% YoY increase.

40% of UK businesses have introduced more support measures and 20% have mental health first aiders in place – double that of all the other countries surveyed.

Significant steps have also been taken in Canada and Australia. There was a 52% YoY increase in the number of Australian businesses providing mental health first aiders, and a 76% YoY increase in support measures across Canadian workplaces.

Worryingly when people do speak out about their mental health, 1 in 3 of those who spoke to their boss said that nothing was 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/brushed over, whilst support and adjustments are offered to younger colleagues.


Mental health related absence rose 21% globally over the last year, including significant increases in both Canada and Australia. However both the UK and Ireland reported a decrease in sickness absence year on year, a potential indicator of presenteeism creeping back into the workplace.

Notes to editor

Full survey data and in-depth analysis is available to download at www.peninsulagrouplimited.com/resource-hub/business-advice/uk-lagging-in-mental-health-conversations/

Alan Price, COO at Peninsula Group Global, is available for interview.

Method of survey

The survey was conducted from 13-20 May 2024 across Peninsula Group’s global client base.

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