Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:35 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Julie Cooper Julie Cooper Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) (Community Health) 2:35 pm, 17th January 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Luciana Berger on securing this debate and pay tribute to her for the excellent work she does in this area. I also thank Norman Lamb and Johnny Mercer for helping to secure this important debate, and particularly pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for sharing his personal experiences, which are very powerful. My mother suffered with OCD all her life and regularly said to me, “If I had a damaged leg I would have got help and sympathy, and there would have been no stigma attached.” So I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue.

Debates such as this with a particular end in sight—to raise awareness and end stigma—are important. I join with Members, in this wonderful spirit of co-operation in all corners of the House, in saying to anyone out there suffering with mental ill health and to their family members that many of us in this place are sincerely dedicated to effecting good change.

We have heard powerful contributions from all sides of the House on the impact that mental health issues can have on people’s lives, and indeed on our economy. For the one in four people who will experience mental health issues, there are serious consequences in all areas of their lives, including at work. It is estimated that 5 million workers, nearly one in seven, are experiencing a mental health condition. Women in full-time employment are twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men, and 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition lose their job every year. The human cost of this is hard to calculate; these are people who have lost their livelihoods because they cannot get the support they need.

While the human cost is difficult to quantify, we do know that there is an enormous economic cost overall. For the whole of the UK it costs up to £99 billion a year. The Mental Health Foundation found that over 12% of sick days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions. The Health and Safety Executive reported that 15.4 million working days are lost each year to work-related stress, anxiety and depression—more than are lost to physical ill health. Mental ill health hits smaller businesses hard, and research from the insurance sector found that it costs small and medium-sized enterprises £30,000 in recruitment costs, training time and lost productivity to replace a staff member. There is another side to presenteeism. As the TUC points out, UK workers with mental health problems also contribute to the economy, adding £226 billion to the UK’s GDP in 2016 alone. They are contributing despite living with mental ill health, so it is only right, at the very least, that society gives something back to them. Despite them often suffering illness, their work supports our economy, so our society must support them.

Mental health does not exist in isolation. It is fundamentally bound up with how we live our lives, and the stresses and strains of modern life take their toll. In my constituency of Burnley, one in five people report feeling anxious or depressed, which is higher than the national average. As many Members have said, incidents of suicidal thoughts and outright acts of suicide have risen worryingly since 2000, with the number of people who self-harm more than doubling over the intervening period. Workplace conditions can be responsible for such strains. Indeed, three quarters of adults say that they are stressed about work. As a former employer, I say to employers out there that the best thing that they can do to improve productivity and profitability is to invest in the health and wellbeing of their workforce, including mental health, which is paramount. Sadly, mental health support is severely lacking for many workers and access to services that prevent mental health problems is getting worse.

Mental health services are still a long way from reaching the promised parity of esteem. Mental health trusts have less money to spend on patient care in real terms than they did in 2012. That underfunding is leading to delays for people who are trying to access services. In some areas of the country, people are waiting four months to access basic talking therapies—four months without the support that they need to stay in work. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, as research from MIND and others has shown, we can actually put a number on the cost of failing to fund mental health services adequately. Poor mental health at work is estimated to cost the taxpayer between £24 billion and £27 billion a year, which is made up of NHS costs, benefit costs and lost tax revenue. Those costs can be avoided if our mental health services are properly funded to give people the support they need.

Just as work can be the cause of stress and, ultimately, mental ill health, work is also where mental ill health can manifest itself. Today’s discussion has shown us one way that support at work could be provided. Mental health first aid, much like physical first aid, can provide a first port of call when mental health problems arise. We have heard already today about the value of early intervention. My hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and for Liverpool, Wavertree raised specific examples of where companies have invested proactively in employing and training mental first aid workers, and we heard that Thames Water has seen a three quarters reduction in sickness absence related to mental health issues.

It is clear that mental health first aid can work, but there is no duty on employers to provide it. Labour’s view is that there should be. In 2012, the Government encouraged employers to offer mental health first aid, but we still have not seen it taken up as widely as it should have been. The amount of Government resources for mental health first aid training is clearly not enough to embed mental health first aid. Last year, the review of workplace mental health by Paul Farmer and Lord Stevenson recommended that all employers put in place systems to support workers with mental health conditions. As we have heard today, mental health first aid can play a key role in that. At the time, the Government accepted the recommendations of the Farmer and Stevenson review, including those about the role of employers. Will the Minister tell us what action the Government are taking to put the recommendations into practice?

The debate today has called for a change in the law, and Labour joins that call. The Government must come forward with proposals to support employers to ensure that mental health first aid is provided. This matter is too important to be left to the good will of employers. Legislation is required.

Mental health first aid alone will not be enough, however. Its role will also be to refer people on to professional mental health services when that is appropriate. Mental health first aid is not a solution when the wait for professional mental health services could be months. It must be part of a wider network of support, alongside clinical services that give people appropriate and timely support. If this Government are serious about tackling the burning injustice of mental ill health, there must be less tinkering around the edges, and a comprehensive new system of support that can intervene as soon as possible when problems emerge. The human cost and economic impact of what is becoming a mental health epidemic can no longer be ignored, and the Government must demonstrate that they take this seriously and act now.