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How work can affect mental health

3 min read

Chair of the Mental Health Commission and Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow examines the effect work can have on mental health and urges UK PLC to take action to support employees.    

For most people, work plays a defining role in their lives. It provides structure, the money to live and enjoy life, and for the lucky ones, it can provide a sense of achievement and purpose. Every one of these elements is a component in supporting good mental health, and helps to explain in part the vicious cycle of mental ill-health and unemployment, as well as the critical role that employment can play in mental health recovery.

But it’s sadly not true to assume that work is always good for you mental health. Surveys have found the mild to moderate mental health problems – including stress, anxiety or depression – are the most common reasons people are signed off work, and mental ill health costs UK employers £26 billion every year: £8.5 billion in sickness absence, £15.1 billion in lost productivity and £2.4 billion in  staff turnover. That’s an average of more than £1000 for every employee, so it’s in everybody’s interests to make sure that employers do everything they can to improve employees mental health, and to encourage them to seek support and treatment as soon as mental health problems develop. While there are some fantastic employers who ‘get’ mental health and its debilitating impact on their employees as well as their business, a recent survey conducted by CentreForum found that two thirds of people said they had been treated unfairly in keeping a job, and 75% said they had stopped themselves applying for work due to fear of discrimination. This needs to end.

That’s why the Mental Health Commission I chaired made the workplace one of our priorities for action. As we recommended, there should be a concerted effort to UK PLC a mental health friendly employer, with all organisation with more than 500 employees signing up to a mental health kitemark and 90% of these organisations on board by 2020. And the Government needs to lead the way – it’s great news that every Department has now signed up to Time to Change, but we now need to ensure that all public sector bodies have taken up the mantle, and use public sector procurement to filter this commitment throughout the distribution chain. And we need much better support for those with mental health problems who have fallen out of the labour market to get back into work. People who are getting support through mental health trusts are up to 250 times less likely to be in work than the general population, and people with serious mental health problems make up less than 1% of the total UK workforce.

This needs to change, we need much better targeted and tailored employment support for those people with mental health problems who find themselves out of work, and effective programmes such as Individual Placement Support to help people secure and retain employment, and build their lives back up. Only then will we truly be able to say Britain is working. 

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