During last week’s House of Commons debate, MPs from all sides managed to break one of the last taboos in politics: the issue of mental health. Powerful speeches from Labour’s Kevan Jones and the Conservative MP Charles Walker proved that even in the dog-eat-dog world of Westminster politics, there is no shame in admitting to suffering from a mental health problem.
As Jones himself argued, publicly admitting his own battle with depression:
“Having to admit that you need help sometimes is not a sign of weakness.”
With both Westminster and the media having reflected on the issue of mental health with the seriousness it deserves, and with a sense of understanding and compassion, the next great ceilings to be shattered in the conversation on mental health are the attitudes of both business and employers alike.
The facts speak for themselves.
The cost to England’s economy from mental health problems is thought to be more than £100 billion a year. In particular, figures from the Centre for Mental Health show the total cost to employers of mental health problems among their staff is estimated to be nearly £26 billion each year, equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce.
This is made up of £8.4 billion in sickness absence, £15.1 billion a year in reduced productivity at work, and £2.4 billion a year in replacing staff who leave their jobs because of mental health problems.
Businesses don’t just have moral obligations to support their more vulnerable employees, they have economic imperatives to bring down some of the eye-watering associated costs generated by mental health problems. Indeed, with one in four people likely to suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their lives, the chances are that many of those will be employers themselves.
Despite this, figures published by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development just before Christmas found that of 2,000 UK employees questioned, just 25% said their organisation encourages staff to talk openly about mental health problems and only 37% said their employer supports employees with mental health problems well.
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“People’s lack of understanding and unfounded fears can be just as destructive as the mental health problem itself.”
So what can be done?
For employers, actively and visibly showing their employees they take the issue of mental health seriously would be a great start. Utilising the work being undertaken by groups across the country, such as the Positive Care Programme run by Touchstone in Leeds, can provide the knowledge and understanding needed to ensure employers don’t find supporting staff with mental health problems a daunting prospect.
Indeed, accessing such support and information enables employers themselves to understand how they can best help their employees continue working productively while addressing their difficulties. Yet just 1% of employers are reported to have used the Access to Work fund to support employees with mental health problems. This needs to change.
From the government, a greater recognition is needed that their employment and health policies should be seen as two sides of the same coin. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has shown that people who are unemployed for more than 12 weeks are “between 4 and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety”.
“Returning to work after a period of illness, including mental ill-health, actually helps recovery and is the best way to prevent long-term sickness. The health status of people of all ages improves when they move off benefits and into work. This is true for people with mild or severe mental health problems.
“It is not surprising then, that the vast majority of people who are out of work, and use mental health services, want to return to or to start work.”
With 8.2% of the population out of work, the Department of Health should be beating the drum for jobs, working flat out with colleagues at the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to tackle the country’s unemployment crisis.
But ministers could also provide greater reassurance to those suffering, who frequently find the biggest barrier to levelling with their employers on their mental health problems is the fear it could be used as an excuse to fire them.
It is welcome news the government and opposition have made clear their intention to support Gavin Barwell MP’s Private Member’s Bill, which would remove the blanket ban that forbids “mentally disordered persons” undertaking jury service, amend legislation that states a person might cease to be a director of a public or private company “by reason of their mental health”, and remove legislation under which an MP automatically loses their seat if they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months.
Yet given the fears of mental health sufferers, ministers and Tory backbenchers alike would do well to end all talk of introducing no fault dismissals as outlined in the Beecroft Report. If those with mental health problems already find it difficult to talk with their employers for fear of the consequences, how badly would these difficulties be compounded if there was a fear of no fault dismissal?
In 21st-century Britain, one wonders how much progress we have really made when someone suffering mental ill health - a problem that’s no fault of their own - feels, as Alastair Campbell has put it, “ashamed” for fear that “their employer wouldn’t understand if they can’t come into work”.
Last week’s Commons debate broke many taboos around mental health issues in politics; it’s now time for business to follow suit.
“You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.
“When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.”