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Mental Health: Absence from Work

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire 4:30 pm, 17th October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the financial effect of absence from work due to mental health problems.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. World Mental Health Day took place a week ago, and I am pleased to have secured this debate on such an important issue so close to the marking of that day. It is hugely encouraging that in the last couple of years the world has woken up to the realities of mental illness. According to the mental health charity Mind, in the UK alone, one in six workers is affected.

The issues and challenges surrounding those suffering and recovering from mental ill health have become better understood and, as a result, its prominence as a public policy issue has grown considerably. NHS England’s five year forward view dashboard provides statistical evidence of the Government’s investment in mental health services, with a total planned spend of £11.9 billion in this financial year. Encouragingly, over the last two years, there has been a total real-terms increase of 3.7%. However, despite that investment, the Government’s landmark independent review of mental health and employers last year showed that 300,000 people in the UK lose their jobs every year as a result of long-term mental health issues, and that nearly 13% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to a mental health condition.

The workplace needs to be at the forefront of better policy to secure better outcomes for sufferers. Today, I intend to focus on the financial effect that absence from work because of mental health has on the individual, their employer and, in turn, the economy. Eighteen months ago, I led a debate in this very Chamber on employers’ role in improving work outcomes for people with long-term health problems. One of the most telling pieces of information that I discovered was from the research at that time by the Mental Health Foundation, which found that 45% of working people with a diagnosed mental health problem had not disclosed it to their employer in the past five years. Of those who had felt able to tell their employer, only half reported mainly positive consequences. Someone who took part in the research concisely summed up the reality in a single line, which I am sure rings true with people here today. They said

“no one is able to say, ‘I have a mental health problem and I can’t come to work today’.”

At the time I was encouraged to hear of the review carried out by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, entitled “Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers”. On publication, the report set out a mental health vision for our country by 2027. The report proposed that all organisations

“whatever their size, will be equipped with the awareness and tools to not only address but prevent mental ill health caused or worsened by work”; that they would be

“equipped to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive, from recruitment and throughout the organisation”; and that they would also be

“aware of how to get access to timely help to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill health”.

It is well documented that one in four people is affected by a mental health problem—the effects of which are wide-ranging—at some point in their life. Those problems can affect an individual’s physical health, their relationships, their financial resilience and their work life. Mental health problems are also linked to other illnesses and fluctuate significantly. Often, people suffering from mental ill health find themselves needing to take a period away from work to recover, which may lead to a significant reduction in income. That reduction often means that people fall behind on their bills, rely increasingly on credit or run down their savings, which can also have the effect of prolonging their illness further.

Not only is supporting those affected by mental health issues the right thing to do, but it makes total economic sense. A joint study soon to be published by Mind and the Chartered Insurance Institute puts the annual cost of mental ill health to employers in the UK at as much as £42 billion, with the total cost to the UK economy estimated to be £99 billion. Those costs come from presenteeism—when individuals are at work but significantly less productive because of their condition—as well as from sickness absence and staff turnover. With such a significant impact, it stands to reason that if we are to improve the mental health outcomes of our society, we need to focus on supporting the workplace to help drive that.

The Stevenson-Farmer review highlighted the fact that the average return on investment of workplace mental health interventions is £4.20 for every pound spent. Clearly, we need to look at ways in which companies can develop preventive strategies to secure the right work-life balance and develop a holistic understanding of wellness, while also encouraging staff to look after both their physical and mental wellbeing. It is reassuring to see therefore that a range of tools are already available to assist employers. Training managers and empowering HR professionals, who can then give line managers the support they need, should be a priority for employers large and small across the country. A critical point to return to is that if employees do not feel able to disclose a health problem, employers cannot hope to put in the right support for them. The earlier open and supportive conversations take place between an employer and an employee, the more effective the support will be.

As a former insurance professional and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for insurance and financial services, I emphasise the role that health and protection insurance benefits can play to support employers in identifying the solutions that work best for their workforce. From my ongoing conversations with all parts of the insurance industry, it is clear to me that it is constantly working to improve understanding of medical conditions, as well as the availability of existing and new treatments, while helping customers manage the financial risks of their medical condition. The growth in resources offered by insurance companies to support firms and workers experiencing mental health difficulties is testament to how seriously those issues are taken by the industry. As an example, AXA PPP healthcare has teamed up with a health tech start-up, BioBeats, to help employees manage stress and fatigue through wearable technology.

We need to remember that for many of us, the workplace is where we spend most of our time. Employers of all sizes and from all sectors should be prepared to support their staff through periods of crisis when they are unable to work as a result of mental ill health, by providing preventive measures and access to early rehabilitation, and offering them a financial safety net if they need to be off for longer periods of time. Insurance products such as income protection can—and do—help with that, producing results than benefit employees as well as employers. However, there remains a need to raise awareness among employers and the workforce about the need for, and availability of, insurance solutions in the workplace. To aid that, there needs to be a conversation with Government about how we can incentivise employers to take up covers such as income protection for their workforce. The new Single Financial Guidance Body should be at the forefront of that as it has the potential to place a significant focus on improving greater financial resilience as well as improving awareness of protection.

Our mind is our most valuable asset, and like any asset, we need to make sure that it is properly taken care of. As the Government’s review demonstrated, the UK can ill afford the productivity cost of poor mental health. Moreover, the cost to individuals is difficult to calculate. While the insurance industry has made progress in helping to support its customers and employees through mental health struggles, that will only work if people feel supported enough to seek the help that they need while at work.

There is a huge incentive for employers, for the Government and for the industry to work together to better improve policy, minimise the financial impact of sickness absence because of mental health problems, promote sustainable recovery and, in turn, improve productivity. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions and the Minister’s response.