Paul Burstow MP writes… Mental health and employment support must be available to all who need it

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 £26billion every year: £8.5billion in sickness absence, £15.1billion in lost productivity and £2.4billion 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 make UK businesses and services mental health friendly employers, with all organisations with more than 500 employees signing up to a mental health kitemark and 90% of these organisations on board by 2020. I am proud to be able to say that we established the first government funding for the Time to Change campaign – which works to end mental health discrimination – during my tenure as Minister responsible for mental health. It is fantastic that under Norman Lamb, the government have committed to continue funding this crucial work.  To maximise our impact, 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. At the same time, Norman Lamb has called on all FTSE 100 companies to sign up to the Time to Change initiative – and this is a call we should all echo.

We must continue to focus on the sectors which are most at risk from mental health issues. In October 2014, Nick Clegg pushed this issue with an announcement of a preventative programme for blue light workers. Emergency services workers deal with the highest level of stress in their workplace, and often deliver frontline mental health care in the course of their work. We have to continue support and value those who are at the forefront of our mental health work, and those who are most vulnerable.

And then there are the thousands of people who, due to their mental health problems, find themselves excluded from the labour market. Almost unbelievably, 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. As ever, Lib Dems in government have taken the lead on this. It’s brilliant that Norman Lamb was recently able to announce Individual Placement Support pilots to work intensively with people and help them back into work, and we have made clear in our pre-manifesto that we are committed to doing more to help people with long term health conditions get back into work.

I hope it’s just the start. We need mental health and employment support available for everyone who needs it, whether to help them stay in work or get back into the labour market. And we need to become a nation of mental health friendly employers, where staff members are able to talk about mental health difficulties in the knowledge that they will not be discriminated against or passed over because of it. That’s why, together with Charles Walker and Kevan Jones, I secured a debate in the House of Commons this week to raise the voices of those who are going without support, and ensure that addressing mental health and employment is on the agenda of any future government.

* 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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  • Jayne Mansfield 27th Feb '15 - 10:54am

    I think this is excellent but over time, through reading arguments on here, I have changed my viewpoint. I now think we really need to replace the word mental. It raises too many negative and quite wrong associations in the mind. For example, when people get really angry they are sometimes described as having ‘gone mental’.

    When we develop new understandings, I now believe we need to develop a new vocabulary to describe them.

  • Philip Thomas 28th Feb '15 - 12:00pm

    There needs to be greater clarity around disclosure and less stigma. When I was unemployed my CV clearly recorded that I had Bipolar Disorder. I was advised that this would put off employers, so it gradually became “a disability” and then no mention whatsoever (there is no obligation to disclose). Whether that contributed to my eventual employment is an open question (and my current employer has a very enlightened attitude to mental health): but it is interesting that those advising me perceived there was a stigma.

  • suzanne fletcher 28th Feb '15 - 2:20pm

    brilliant. when I was at CAB (39 years till I left a year ago) it screamed out at me that proper support was needed for many to be able to work. people want to, but know it will all end in tears.
    Also so many of the dismissal cases I saw were rooted in mental health issues (including the dismisser, or at least line manager). mainly though it was the small employers who had virtually no HR systems. the majority of cases were not able to me taken to a tribunal as they had not been employed long enough.
    so not an instant solution, but a beginning, of not only a better system, but a change in attitude.
    Paul is right to be proud.

  • Philip Thomas 28th Feb '15 - 2:22pm

    I’d also like to see mental health first aid taught as well as physical health first aid.

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