Mental health

Report calls for better mental health support in the workplace

"Up to 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems have to leave their jobs each year, a report says," writes BBC News. This was just one of the UK media outlets that published the findings of a report looking at the extent of mental ill health in the workplace, and the related economic and social costs.

Most of the media led with headlines stating that 300,000 people with long-term mental health conditions leave work each year – twice the rate of those without mental health conditions.

The loss to the economy was estimated to be up to £99 billion a year, including lost productivity output, the cost of providing benefits and healthcare costs.

What is the basis for these news stories?

They are based on a report, "Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers", commissioned by Prime Minister Theresa May in January 2017.

It was written by Lord Dennis Stevenson (mental health campaigner and former HBOS chief) and Paul Farmer (chief executive of the mental health charity Mind), and was jointly published by the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. It includes research by audit firm Deloitte on costs to employers and the state.

The report is free to download from the government's website.

The prime minister welcomed the publication and said she wanted the recommendations to be implemented.

What were the main findings?

The 88-page report looked at the extent of the problem of poor mental health in the workplace and its associated costs. It examined case studies of good practice and makes recommendations for employers in both the public and private sector, and for the government, to improve the situation.

Key findings include:

  • Around 15% of people in work have symptoms of a mental health condition.
  • Around 6% of people with a long-term mental health condition lose their job each quarter – amounting to 300,000 people each year – compared with 4% of those with a physical health condition.

The authors say that everyone – not just people with long-term mental health conditions – has a mental health status, which can move between "thriving at work" to "struggling at work".

Some of those struggling will be off sick. However, the report stresses that people with mental health conditions can still thrive at work if given the right support.

The key effects of mental ill health include:

  • people being off work sick (absenteeism)
  • people being at work but unable to work effectively (so-called "presenteeism")
  • increased workload for the rest of the workforce
  • increased turnover of the workforce
  • lack of career progression for people with mental health conditions

The costs to employers are estimated at:

  • £8 billion for absenteeism
  • £17-26 billion for lost productivity from presenteeism
  • £8 billion for staff turnover

Costs varied widely between different private sector industries and were higher for the public sector.

What does the report recommend?

It says that all employers of any size in the UK should adopt six "core standards" for improving mental health at work:

  1. Produce, implement and communicate a "mental health at work" plan.
  2. Develop mental health awareness among employees.
  3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.
  4. Provide employees with good working conditions.
  5. Promote effective people management.
  6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

These recommendations are based on best practice or evidence, and the authors state there is a "pressing need" for more robust evidence about what works to support improved mental health at work.

In addition, they say public sector employers – such as the NHS, civil service and education service – and private sector employers with more than 500 employees should adopt "enhanced" standards to:

  • increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting
  • demonstrate accountability
  • improve the disclosure process
  • ensure provision of tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help

Recommendations for the government include introducing legal changes to enhance protection for people with mental health conditions and the development of a more flexible model for statutory sick pay, to help people return to work gradually.

The authors conclude: "At a time when there is a national focus on productivity, the inescapable conclusion is that it is massively in the interest of both employers and Government to prioritise and invest far more in improving mental health. The UK can ill-afford the productivity cost of this poor mental health."

What does this mean for you?

Many people go through periods of mental ill health that make it more difficult for them to work. For some, this is a short-term problem and they can continue at work, or return to work after sickness absence, with appropriate support.

Many people with longer-term mental health problems can also continue working, or return to work after absence, although the report suggests some people struggle or are unable to do so.

It stresses that people with long-term mental health conditions are able to work and should be supported to continue to do so by their employers.

Under the Equality Act (2010), your employer has a legal duty to make "reasonable adjustments" to your work.

Depending on your circumstances, you might like to ask about:

  • flexible hours – for instance, you might like to return to work part-time, or start later in the day if you're sleepy from medication in the mornings
  • support from a colleague in the short or long term
  • a place you can go for a break when needed

Returning to the workplace after a mental health issue can be daunting at first, but research suggests it usually has a positive effect on wellbeing in the long run.

Read more advice about Returning to work after mental health issues.

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