Mental health at work and austerity
Government austerity policies are undermining efforts to challenge the grim position of working age people with mental ill health in Britain today.
Only 40% of people with depression work, and only 10% of those with diagnosed mental illnesses (Labour Force Survey): this has been a long term exclusion from the benefits of work. Mental health issues cover a large proportion of those recognised as disabled by the Equality Act 2010. This is not a small matter: the Centre for Mental Health reports 23% of people are affected at any one time and up to half of us may face mental ill health at some point in our lives. The cost to health services, to the economy and to employers is astronomical. The human cost of failing to tackle the issue, to the individual and their family and friends, is beyond measurement.
The first government-commissioned expert report proposing a joined-up, cross departmental approach to improve things was launched in January 2010. It was novel in proposing that health and employment issues be linked up. Part of the proposal was that the Access to Work scheme be extended to provide support for employers to retain people with mental health issues in employment, instead of sacking them.
This would help tackle the symptoms. But to eliminate the problem requires the approach of establishing “mentally healthy” workplaces. Charities like MIND have been promoting this to employers for some time, but trade unionists know that economic recession combined with government policy has created conditions in too many workplaces that undermine good mental health. Threats of redundancy, pressure for ever greater productivity combined with reduced staffing levels, continuous financial pressure following frozen or below-inflation pay, less full-time work, insecure employment … all contribute to much greater stress, which can lead to depression – but also to a reluctance by the sufferer to admit to it for fear both of the stigma attached to it, and of losing the job. But without early recognition and intervention, that is all too often the outcome.
For serious cases, austerity also impacts on the chance of treatment leading to recovery. The BBC and Community Care reported (False Economy, 10/2013) the loss of 1711 mental health beds in the NHS since April 2011, nearly ten percent of the total, alongside reductions in community mental health services.
As for government promises on using Access to Work funding to help retain people in their jobs, latest figures from the DWP (October 2013) show a grand total of 690 people with a mental health condition helped so far in that financial year, representing 2.9% of the total.
Meanwhile those finding themselves out of work, alongside other disabled people, risk having their genuine need for financial support ignored in the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) run by ATOS. A case had to go to the Court of Appeal for a ruling that current assessment processes unfairly disadvantaged people with mental health impairments (December 2013). The DWP, of course, had challenged the finding. It has yet to be seen how soon the order that assessors take account of GP or consultants’ views works through the system.
A fundamental problem remains that of stigma. Until and unless everyone is properly educated on mental health, workers (including trade union members) will continue to fear the reaction of both their colleagues, and their employer, if their mental health deteriorates.
Trade unions continue to work to educate members and to equip union representatives to assist members with mental health issues. The TUC published guidance available from the TUC website. Unions like Unite have produced their own toolkits.
On February 6, Mind and Rethink are asking organisations to hold a “Time to Talk” day to demonstrate that little things can make a big difference when it comes to mental ill health and that talking about it can help challenge the stigma that is a major obstacle to dealing with it. Unions might encourage the employer to make use of this opportunity to improve understanding and practice not just on February 6, but throughout the year.
The TUC’s briefing, Trade Unions and disabled people fighting austerity, can be downloaded at tuc.org.uk/equality-issues/disability-issues/disabled-people-fighting-austerity