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

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6 Responses to “More needs to be done to help people with mental illness back to work”

  1. Barbara Kirk

    An excellent piece.

  2. stevep

    Well said, Ruby.

  3. Fiona Gregory

    also for people aged over 50 or so. They are never given a chance at all. What is up with bosses?

  4. JAMC

    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.

    I’m not so sure it’s as easy as you make it sound. My mother worked for one of the large UK supermarket chains for 11 years, the kind of large organisation that is well versed in the “proper” techniques for reducing workplace stress, emphasising staff well-being and attaining a proper work-life balance. This kind of thinking wasn’t rolled out to staff on the front line, and after 11 years of enduring an increasingly pressurised working environment my mother experienced a kind of nervous breakdown, and now suffers with chronic fatigue syndrome – all directly as a result of the three elements you cite above; excessive workload pressure, terrible relations between exhausted staff and a distant management and chronic under-resourcing within the particular store she worked in.

    Your piece assumes that employers have their employees’ best interests at heart – and I will admit that some do (I have the good fortune to work for an employer that actually does these things properly) – but there is a large chunk of the economy out there where the prevailing attitude towards staff (particularly staff in front-line, low paid roles) is principally to view them as a transient resource to be sucked dry and spat out. No amount of politely asking these employers to consider mental health of their employees is going to change a deeply ingrained attitude that low-skilled workers are 10-a-penny, have little recourse when they’re burned out by the impossible conditions imposed upon them, and can be replaced at the drop of a hat by a mass reserve of people desperate for any kind of paid work they can get less they face the horror of job centre sanctions and punishments.

    Part of the answer is far stronger, genuinely independent trade unions with greater statutory rights (in my mother’s case the store did have union presence, but they were “in the management’s pocket”) – employers prey more easily upon the weakened, atomised individuals who feel they have nowhere to turn to and nobody has their back. However, at the core, we need to address the question of employers escaping the cost of the mental damage they cause their employees by subjecting them to the kind of conditions alluded to here. At the moment, the true financial cost of this is something that the employer can escape – it’s an externality picked up by the NHS and benefits system. Employers are chewing people up, spitting them out, and it’s wider society that is currently left to pick up the pieces – and the costs. I’d like to see the new Labour approach to the issue of mental health consider the question of making companies pay up for the damage and distress they cause – in the long run, financial penalty is the only language that companies of this misanthropic mindset understand and respond to.

  5. Better Mental Health Magazine

    “better understanding of mental illness benefits us all.”

    Absolutely! That’s why we are doing what we do what we do. Personal experiences of all mental health conditions and illnesses in each issue. It’s just a matter of getting it out there! Here’s a sample of an article from Issue 3 about Workplace Wellness & Eating. There’s much more in each issue!

  6. treborc

    Work place depression because the job is repetitive or it might be boring stress full it can be of course trouble in the future but that is not depression.

    depressive illness is a much more complicated illness and doctors have been trying to understand it for a long time .

    having somebody within Government who think that just sorting out the work place issue will get a lot of people with an illness back to work well your in for a disappointment.

    Mental illness is one of the most complicated illness we know about and it comes down in the main to the person being able to pull themselves out of it, or that was what they use to think doctor said to me when I was ill, pull your self together sort it out.

    BUt I was in this place it was horrendous dark and so difficult to get out of and even today I feel like I’m once step away from going back.

    I do not know time and help is needed, but many people who are disabled and sick know the one thing that government do little about, is getting employers to employ us . No good hammering me all day and night telling me it’s my duty if the employer is not willing to give me a go or a chance .

    Employers are the biggest issue they have always been, why the hell would an employer employ people who may or may not be able to work full time every day, a job when they have so many other who are abled bodied and willing to work.

    I’m paraplegic who is suffering from long term mental health issues and at this time is is the funding issues which are holding me back. why am I like this because I cannot find a job.

    I’m suffering after ten years of looking for a job I’ve failed .

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