Some good news on mental health (at last)?
No, actually. The latest statistics for the prevalence of mental health problems among Britain’s workers are as bad as ever, and they continue to be matched by reductions in the funding of mental health services. Disabled people with mental ill health continue to have among the lowest employment rates among all disabled people according to the Labour Force Survey. These statistics also confirm a clear link with conditions such as stress generated at work that lead to mental ill health, just as other surveys have reported a rise in the incidence of stress at work.
Evidently, just having a job – as politicians tell us – is not necessarily good for mental health: it’s necessary to be able to add the “good” in front of the “job” to achieve that outcome.
But the good news is that trade unions are finding ways to prevent mental health problems or, if it’s already happened to get employers to enable them to continue in work.
A seminar the TUC held in February 2015 heard six case studies from unions working in various sectors where successful projects had been negotiated with employers who had been convinced of the value of creating mentally healthy workplaces, or at least to have established policies and procedures that meant that someone with a mental health problem was not automatically driven into the arms of an increasingly oppressive benefits regime where other research confirms that people with mental health issues are the most likely to lose benefits through sanctioning (for actions directly related to their health condition).
The TUC has now published a report of the seminar which you can download here.
The examples presented were how USDAW representatives had persuaded the employer in a call centre to adopt a mental health “first aid” scheme; how a UCATT rep worked with a major construction site to develop a mental health awareness and training programme along with the local NHS that has won an award; and a joint union/employer plan to take early action to prevent mental ill health in a government agency.
The seminar also showcased work done by ATL, NUT and Unite to support their members. The education unions spoke of epidemic levels of stress brought about by massive pressure on teachers and how the unions were tackling the consequences successfully. Unite drew examples from some of its many sectors to demonstrate good practice at work.
We also heard a wide range of bad employer practices and common messages emerging were the reluctance of people to act early, for fear of the stigma that continues to blight efforts to prevent mental ill health, of line managers who did nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing, or indeed did the wrong thing, and of employers who simply ignored their own policies and the law to get rid of people with mental ill health. It emerged that one area often overlooked is that women are even more at risk than men of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination (for example, around the consequences of the menopause).
Austerity has made stress and consequently mental ill health worse but it has been an issue for much longer. The TUC report provides examples of approaches that have been shown to work and that unions can build on and adapt to their own workplaces, preferably persuading the employer of the benefits to everyone of adopting a mentally healthy workplace approach.