Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent speech on Britain’s sick note culture highlights how something’s ‘gone wrong’ since Covid, an expert has warned.

An estimated 850,000 more people are currently economically inactive according to reports.

But Nathan Shearman, director of therapy and training at Red Umbrella and a qualified psychotherapist and counsellor, said it is a multi-faceted and complex issue to tackle.

He says: “We have known for a while that the number of people who are economically inactive has been going up. And the language around it is interesting – economically inactive suggests that you’re not contributing to the country’s economy, which misses the fact that these people in a lot of cases genuinely want to work, but simply cannot.

“Access to services is vital. That’s where the government has a big responsibility in terms of providing the services needed. And that’s where a big part of this issue lies. For those who are off work with their mental health, the lead time to get mental health support is huge.

“In most major cities, you’re looking at a six-month lead time for counselling and therapy through your GP. That’s potentially six months you’re going to be signed off before you can even get any help or support to start to get better.

“We know that there have been a lot of budget cuts over the years and that mental health services are significantly underfunded as a result.

“This means that employers can now no longer rely on the NHS to help provide the solutions if and when employees need support to get over mental ill health.

Employers must step up to fill some of those gaps and have plans in place to help both prevent and support.

“There are steps that workplaces should be taking to improve people’s wellbeing and reduce the number of individuals that are being signed off sick.”

Outlining what some of those steps are he continued: “Education is really important from a preventative point of view, too, because if somebody comes forward and their line manager, for instance, just doesn’t know how to respond, this could be particularly detrimental.

“Knowing how to respond and having a basic understanding of mental health is key, as there is there’s a lot of misinformation out there, as well as often, an old-school mentality surrounding mental health issues.

“That’s where mental health training becomes vital, such as Mental Health First Aid training for line managers to teach them how to support their teams.

“That’s also really crucial when people return to work after experiencing mental health issues. There’s often an expectation that someone is just going to come back and resume working as normal, but that’s not expected with physical health issues.

“Having managers trained up to support individuals within their team effectively when they come back means that they’re less likely to need to be signed off again.

“Something invaluable that comes from mental health training is knowing how to make adjustments for people who may be struggling. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying ‘if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, just know that you can talk to me, and I’ll help you any way I can’ or just letting them know they can take a break whenever they need to.

“That means that employees are less likely to get to a point where they are feeling overwhelmed because they know they have options. It’s also about offering additional support such as employee assistance programmes or counselling and therapy services.