More needs to be done to help people with mental illness back to work

Jeremy Corbyn's creation of a ministerial post dedicated to mental health was welcome and long overdue. This week we're looking at some of the problems facing mental health services in the UK, and what can be done


New shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger has said that she will be working closely with Labour’s work and pensions secretary Owen Smith to develop the mental health portfolio.

Berger is right to identify this crucial area of cross-cutting. Work has a huge impact on our mental health, and today’s target-driven culture means that huge numbers of people are reporting work-related stress. In 2013/14, the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 487,000 (39 per cent of all work-related illnesses).

The total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 11.3 million. CIPD reported in 2011 that mental ill health at work costs UK employers £26 billion per year – on average £1,035 per employee. The costs come from sickness absence, ‘presenteeism’ (reduced productivity when at work, more expensive than absenteeism because it is more common among higher paid staff) and the cost associated with replacing and training new staff.

There is a huge funding gap in mental health services, but if we take into consideration the cost of these missed days to the economy, and the cost of mental illness to the NHS, there is an undeniable case for plugging that gap with preventative measures.

Data from the Labour Force Survey shows that workplace stress that affects a person’s ability to carry on with their job is mainly caused by workload pressures, difficulties with interpersonal relationships or changes like reduction of staff or resources. These are all things which can be easily managed with proper – though fairly simple – training and proper communication. The charity Mind offers mental health training and consultancy courses to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace.

It is often very difficult for people to get back into work after a break caused by mental illness, and there is a high rate of unemployment among people with mental illnesses. A long spell out of work can make it difficult to return to previous levels of productivity. Even when they are in a period of recovery many people feel that a return to work, with all its associated pressures, will make them feel worse.

A 2009 survey led by the anti-stigma campaign ‘Time to Change’ found that 92 per cent of the British public believes that admitting to having a mental health problem would damage someone’s career. Most worryingly, 56 per cent of the 2,000 respondents said they would not employ someone with depression, even if they thought they were the best person for the job. Statistics like these prevent people from being honest with their employers, which can increase work stress even more.

There need to be proper strategies in place for helping people with mental illnesses to return to work; Luciana Berger has said she will be working with the Federation of Small Businesses to help create solutions.

Most mental health charities recommend using some form of Wellness Action Plan (WAP) to help people back into productive work. These are personal action plans which require the employer to understand:

  • Actions and behaviours that support the employee’s mental wellbeing
  • Symptoms, early warning signs and triggers for poor mental health
  • The support the employee needs from the line manager
  • Positive steps for the individual to take if they are experiencing problems

Mental health problems do not exist in isolation. They cannot be treated apart from physical health, financial circumstance and employment status. For effective and personalised treatment it is essential that careful attention is paid to the context of a person’s illness, to help them manage in every aspect of their lives.

Luciana Berger has already shown that she understands and will address the crossover between work and mental health. I hope that the Conservative government will follow suit – better understanding of mental illness benefits us all.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.