Paul Burstow MP writes… Government should make New Year’s resolution to tackle mental health employment scandal

Mental health has rightly gone up the political agenda since the coalition came to power. Long neglected, mental health problems cost the UK in excess of £105 billion annually and affect one in four of the population.

Earlier this month saw publication of the most comprehensive picture of progress on mental health. The government’s Mental Health Dashboard brings together in one place mental health data from a wide range of sources for the first time. Its aim is to monitor the progress achieved in implementing the No Health Without Mental Health strategy.

My successor at the Department of Health, care services minister Norman Lamb, deserves much credit for compiling and publishing this authoritative data, but its content makes for hard reading, especially with respect to the parlous employment prospects affecting people with mental health problems and the stigma and prejudice that they continue to encounter in the workplace.

The cost of mental health to business is just over £1,000 per employee each year, or almost £26 billion across the UK economy. Yet research indicates that a more effective management of mental health at work can save around 30% of these costs.

The figures reported in the Mental Health Dashboard indicate the huge gap in employment practice and culture that must be overcome if we are to begin to address this challenge effectively.

Just 28% of those experiencing mental health problems report being in employment in the latest year for which figures exist, down from 29.5% the year before. People from BME groups and those reporting a serious mental health disorder fared even worse – with fewer than 20% in employment in the former category and no more than 8% in the latter. This compares unfavourably to those with other forms of disability (47% in employment) and the general employment rate across the population as a whole (70%).

Research with mental health service users published at the weekend by the CentreForum Mental Health Commission supports this bleak employment outlook for those experiencing mental health problems.

61% of respondents reported they had stopped themselves applying for education or training courses and 75% said they had stopped themselves from applying for work through fear of how potential employers might respond to their mental health condition. 84% of respondents said they had stopped or delayed receiving professional care for a mental health problem because of concern it would harm their chances when applying for jobs – nearly half (49%) had done this a lot.

These findings suggest the continued presence of stigma against mental health in many workplaces. 63% of respondents said they have been treated unfairly in finding a job or in trying to keep it (67%); while 65% said they were concerned about what people at work may think, say, or do if their mental health condition became known.

The government, as an employer, must do more to show a real, positive and practical response in the light of these appalling findings.

Here are three practical New Year’s resolutions. They will cost nothing to introduce, they are entirely within the compass of central government to effect, and they might just start to make a difference for those experiencing mental health issues in the workplace.

First, all central government departments and agencies should be required to meet the best employer practice regarding mental health. They should be required to join the Time for Change campaign and the Mindful Employer scheme forthwith. Some have already signed up, all should be compelled to do so.

Second, requirements already in place for front line contractors to commit to employer mental health schemes, should be extended to all employers wishing to deliver contracted services tendered by central government.

Third, central government should bring added pressure to local authorities to introduce similar requirements on existing and prospective employers within the formal tendering processes that they adopt.

For the able bodied the economic recovery might just be around the corner, but for those facing the emotional, physical and stigma challenges of mental health in the workplace the government must make a New Year resolution to do more.

* Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat candidate for Sutton and Cheam and was the MP until the dissolution of Parliament on 30th March.

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  • Matt Ridley 15th Jan '14 - 4:51pm

    As someone whose wife suffers from long term, almost chronic mental illness, I have a personal understanding of how neglected this area of the NHS is. In the last 4-5 years the mental health service has gradually been eroded by cuts and irresponsible choices by Politicians to the point that treatment of long term illnesses have virtually stopped. I know of Support Workers made redundant because someone somewhere decided in their infinite wisdom that 6 treatments were sufficient to “cure” a mental illness and after that you were discharged. My wife was discharged from the mental health service when 6 months pregnant despite her support team knowing she was at a higher risk of post natal depression because of these cuts in funding. Her support worker was made redundant despite supporting over 60 people suffering from chronic mental health issues. They now have NO support… WHAT SO EVER. These are issues created by YOUR coalition. Coming out to point out the issues now after people have been suffering needlessly because of decisions by the coalition is frankly sickening.

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