Surviving or Thriving? What is the Difference?

As part of our series on Mental Health Awareness Week, Employer Advisory Service ELAS share why we need our staff to thrive, not just survive.

Maya Angelou said: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.”

In 2016, an estimated 15.8 million working days were lost due to mental health issues, including stress, depression and anxiety, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS); 11.5% of all sickness absence days. This is down from 2014 when 12.7% of all sickness absence was due to mental health issues.

The ONS also found that the overall absence rate for 2016 was an estimated 137 million working days or the equivalent of 4.3 days per worker. This is the lowest recorded rate since reports began in 1993, when it was 7.2 days per worker.

This could be down to the fact that there is now more awareness of absenteeism which discourages unnecessary absence; smart cloud-based software helps employers manage absence better by identifying trends and putting measures in place to assist employees with long-term conditions. However, it could also be down to presenteeism.

According to the Sainsbury Centre, presenteeism accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism, and costs more to employees as it is more common among higher paid staff. Presenteeism is estimated to cost up to £15.1 billion a year in reduced productivity at work.

Presenteeism could be defined as surviving in terms of mental health.

The definition of ‘to survive’ is to remain alive or in existence, to carry on despite hardships or trauma, to remain functional or usable, to cope.

We spoke to Dan who has been diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety and PTSD. He told us:

“All you want to do is sit at home or not even get out of bed, but you know you can’t because you’ve got to deal with life. You have to go to work, pay bills, eat dinner and do chores – normal everyday stuff – when all you really want to do is disappear into a hole somewhere. You’ve got to put on a mask and pretend that nothing’s wrong.”

We all have to survive in order to thrive but how do you go from merely getting by and paying the bills to actually thriving?

‘To thrive’ is defined as to grow strongly and vigorously, to do well or prosper, to flourish.

Pam Rogerson is HR Director for the ELAS Group. She says:

“Thriving is about finding the balance between your career and personal life. It’s doing something that you love and enjoying it, giving meaning to what you do. If someone is merely surviving then they are not taking the time to reflect on the balance of positive and negative events to help put things in perspective. It can be easy, particularly when someone is struggling with mental health issues, to be consumed in negative thoughts and the daily struggle. Try to remember that however bad something may seem, this too will pass.”

A survey by Comres for BBC Radio 5 Live found that 49% of people would be unlikely to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. Only 35% said they would be happy to tell their colleagues.

Pam continues:

“It’s worrying that so few people feel they would be able to confide in colleagues or managers about their mental health. People should know that there is plenty of support available in the workplace to help people struggling with mental ill health and it will not be stigmatised; HR is acutely aware of the problems that employees with mental health issues suffer from. We recommend that businesses have an effective communication policy and sickness/absence policy in place for referrals and to ensure their employees know that anything they discuss with HR is in complete confidence.


“An Occupational Health policy can also help. Mental health is a very personal subject and people might find it easier to talk to a medical professional than their boss. When someone is struggling with mental health the last thing they want is the added stress of not knowing whether or not they will be able to pay their bills if they have to take time off work. Our Employee Assistance Programme provides access to 24/7 telephone support, counselling services and psychological assessments as well as return to work services that can help support an employee and enable them to remain in work. Cognitive behavioural therapy can also be helpful and there are simple stress management techniques, such as relaxation, exercise and problem-solving skills, which can help staff to cope with stress.”  


Pam believes the most important thing for employers to do is to raise awareness of the early signs of mental health issues at work.  She concludes:

“It’s essential that managers and HR practitioners are aware of the early signs of mental ill health so that they can provide support before an individual’s condition deteriorates to the point they go off on long-term sick leave. Line managers, occupational health professionals and GP’s need to work together to support employees with mental health problems, helping to ensure that they are able to thrive in their roles and see themselves as healthy, valued and trusted employees.”

Author: Editor

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