Workplace mental health in rural non-farm businesses


Workplace mental health issues are widespread, yet prior research shows that many employers are unaware of their extent and impact. Previous studies suggest that addressing these issues could drive significant improvements in productivity and employee wellbeing. This report examines whether the experiences, attitudes and practices of firms with regard to mental health issues vary depending upon their location in rural or urban areas.

Key findings

Our analysis indicates two broad differences between the rural and urban firms in our sample.

  • Firstly, rural firms’ experiences of mental health issues appear to be less intense than those of urban firms. Rural firms generally report lower levels of mental health-related issues, which they tend to attribute to different causes than urban firms, and they seem to approach the management of them differently.
  • Secondly, and perhaps relatedly, rural firms appear to be less engaged with a range of initiatives and practices designed to address workplace mental health than their urban counterparts.

At a more detailed level, we identify five key areas of divergence between rural and urban firms:

  1. Rural and urban firms experience, and approach, sickness absence differently.
  2. Rural firms are less likely to have experienced mental health-related sickness absence in 12 months      leading up to the study.
  3. Rural firms experience different forms of presenteeism and adopt a different approach to dealing with it.
  4. Rural firms approach workplace mental health differently than urban firms.
  5. Rural firms’ adoption of practices focused on workplace mental health differs from that of urban firms.

Conclusions and recommendations

Prior research shows that mental health issues can have significant impacts on individuals and on the firms that employ them. Reliable sources indicate that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant negative effect on mental health in the UK, and previous studies have also identified factors associated with rurality that may provoke or exacerbate mental health issues, often related to living and working in more isolated settings.

Covid-19 appears to have had a slightly smaller impact on rural firms, and although rural firms and urban firms are equally likely to report having changed their business model as a consequence of the pandemic, urban firms were more likely than rural firms to report having moved to virtual meetings

and to have introduced working from home. This may reflect different working patterns pre-pandemic in rural firms. This may also be why rural firms were less likely to report employee wellbeing impacts of increased use of technology.

Understanding the ways in which employers in rural areas experience mental health issues has implications for the strategies and interventions that are put in place to address them, and will permit policy makers, support organisations and mental health experts to develop nuanced approaches relevant for rural areas.

Our findings indicate underlying differences between rural and urban firms’ approaches towards workplace mental health which may have policy implications. For rural firms, policies that foster and enable a more structured approach to workplace mental health may be appropriate, to encourage greater visibility of the extent and impacts of these issues. This in turn may encourage firms to adopt the initiatives and practices necessary to support their employees, including training for line managers, relevant in-house support and signposting to external resources.