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2020 – people 34% fitter, mental health and work life balance improve

It is always important to read press articles critically, particularly in a tough year like 2020.

There is a tendency to write articles to fit the ideas you already have, or to generate an alarmist headline – irrespective of the facts.

Just this morning I received an email from a respected HR organisation with the headline “Increase in mental health-related sickness absence during lockdown, analysis finds.”

In fact, the study actually shows that in April, May and June 2020 the issue of UK “fit notes” (return to work after illness) dropped by 34% when compared to the 12-month average.

Overall, employees took less time off work sick during lockdown. Perhaps not surprising as in normal times people working from home do get sick less soften.

The overall number of fit notes issued for ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ also fell –  by 22.8%

The only fact even barely supporting the headline was that there had been a rise in the proportion of this lower number of fit notes that were for mental and behavioural disorders – from 35% to 41%.

If we think critically we would also ask “are people as likely to go to their doctor to get signed back to work during a pandemic?” – which might skew the whole findings. We might also wonder if its normal for April, May and June to be lower than the 12 month average – wouldn’t sickness be higher in the winter?

Why have I bothered to blog about this? We expect the press to sensationalise (though we might expect better from a HR organization).

It is the latest in a series of articles that have irritated me this year. Another headline trumpeted that people in USA were working more hours out of fear of losing their jobs. The research actually showed that people were starting earlier, finishing later but taking more time off during the day – which is what you would expect during the lockdown where people have to juggle other commitments and work around this. Actual working hours had declined.

More accurate and positive headlines for these two studies might have been

  • illness drops by a third during lockdown
  • mental health is better during lockdown
  • employees use lockdown period to improve work life balance

I am pessimistic about seeing these headlines anytime soon (except in this blog) but I think as employers we can do a better job of communicating the advantages of remote working and also celebrating the fantastic job most companies have done in keeping their people safe and providing flexibility and support.

It is not just politics where fake news is a problem. When you see these headlines, take some time to read them in a bit more detail then click through to the original research if it is referenced  and see what it really says.

Life may be a lot less alarming than click bait headlines suggest.

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