Sickness absences at highest level in years with mental health issues increasingly being cited as the reason – an overloaded mind often behind physical ailments

Press Release 6.9.2022

During the beginning of 2022, sickness absences increased to a higher level than before the pandemic. This can be seen from sick leave data regarding Mehiläinen’s occupational healthcare customers. The number of employees taking sick leave for mental health reasons continued to increase, albeit much more slowly than during 2020 and 2021. The power of the mind is strong and, at worst, has the potential to even cause physical ailments.

Diagnosis data on Mehiläinen’s approximately 500,000 occupational healthcare customers indicate that sick leave numbers had already overtaken pre-pandemic levels during the first half of 2022. Of all sick leave started during the first half of the year, 10% resulted in more days of absence per employee than in the previous year. The number of short (1–3 days) periods of absence has increased by 18%, while longer absences of more than three months have been decreasing as in previous years.

- In particular, absences of 4–10 days increased significantly during the first half of 2022, being more than 2.5 times higher than in the previous year. This can be explained by the noticeable increase in sick leave due to the coronavirus and other respiratory tract infections. Absences caused by these reasons multiplied, says Sirkku Martti, Medical Director of Occupational Health at Mehiläinen.

Mental health reasons are the third most common cause of sick leave after respiratory tract infections and musculoskeletal disorders. The number of employees taking sick leave for reasons of mental health continues to increase, albeit much more slowly (5%) than during 2020 and 2021 (22%).

- Even though the pandemic has improved, global instability continues to cause stress and anxiety, and these are reflected in our patients. Sleep disorders, anxiety and depression are still the most common diagnoses made during mental health appointments in occupational healthcare, Martti says.

Calculated in the number of days, the amount of sick leave for reasons of mental health decreased, even though the number of new sick leave periods and the total amount of sick leave increased. In total, the number of days of absence due to mental health reasons was as much as 23% lower per employee than in the previous year.

- The most significant psychological disorders that cause sick leave are mild, mainly including anxiety, insomnia and mild or moderate depression, and recovery expectations for these are positive. In these cases, employees often recover and return to work quickly. Companies’ investments in the development of supervisory work and early psychological support provided by occupational healthcare services have helped reduce the duration of periods of absence. Help can be received before symptoms and challenges worsen, Martti says.

The first symptoms of an overloaded mind often go unnoticed – potentially even resulting in physical ailments

Specialists advise everyone to seek help without delay. During appointments, Mehiläinen's Occupational Healthcare Psychologist Sari Valavuori sees how the early signs of mental overloading are too often ignored – typically with good intentions. Persistence and a goal-driven approach, combined with the aim to conscientiously achieve goals in matters that are important to us, are traits that many of us share.

- We see various opportunities all the time – what is and what could be on offer. From time to time, it may be difficult to identify what is sufficient for us. We set high requirements for what a good life consists of and how to feel good. In this vicious cycle, we may end up in a situation where we stop listening to our mind which may be sending us messages of overloading, Valavuori says.

The mind’s messages may include the feeling of irritation, crying or tiredness, or difficulties concentrating. These are often ignored without considering the root cause. Often, only more significant physical symptoms, including heart arrhythmia, severe headaches and other ailments, stop us – and often also frighten us.

- It helps if we stop to consider what goals we want to set for our work, life, and relationships from the perspective of what is important for us. When we make decisions consciously, we can justify them. As a result, we do not accept other people’s opinions as direct facts, but can reflect them against our own personal goals, Valavuori says.

The demands of working life challenge us. If we are expected to do too much, it may be more difficult to maintain our own boundaries. This leads to a state of overloading, often increasing our tendency to compare ourselves to others.

- Later on, we recognise that “I saw the signs, but I thought all of it would pass”. I encourage everyone to focus on these signs and add something positive to their resources, every day, Valavuori says in conclusion.