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Mental Health: Absence from Work

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:39 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:39 pm, 17th October 2018

It is a pleasure to be called to speak, Mr Betts.

I congratulate Craig Tracey on securing the debate. His introduction was excellent. The subject is important and topical, and one that I am aware of primarily through my constituents, as will be the case for others who participate in the debate. I hope that the Minister will give us some answers.

Recently, I read an interesting article in the Safety and Health Practitioner about this very issue. The crux of the matter is clear: with great respect, we are doing a disservice to those suffering from mental health issues if we make no changes. That is why this debate in Westminster Hall is important, even though many other things are happening in the House at the same time.

We are all aware of the massive impact that mental health issues have on our physical wellbeing, our mental acumen and our ability to cope with work relationships, home life and, simply, life in general. As an elected representative, I am into my 34th year, whether as a councillor, an Assembly Member or, now, an MP. Over all those years I have been very aware of those with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and the impact that all that has on their life, work, income and whole lifestyle. The issue is so important.

The article is worth reading—it would be time well spent—but I do not have the time to repeat it verbatim in full:

“In the workplace, mental health issues can have a serious impact on both the morale of employees, those suffering from mental health issues and their colleagues who then pick up the additional workload.”

If an individual is under pressure to work but is not able to cope and is doing less, who knows who else will have to do more? That is one of the reasons why I want to highlight the issue.

The article goes on:

“It can also impact an organisation’s productivity and profitability through overtime costs, recruitment of temporary or permanent cover—absence from work due to mental health issues is thought to cost the UK economy £26 billion per annum.”

That assesses the magnitude of the issue financially, but it only tells a small part of the story. Each one of us, as elected representatives, will have individual cases with which to illustrate matters. Furthermore:

“Mental health issues can appear as the result of experiences in both our personal and working lives.”

Sometimes people’s personal life spills over into their working life, and sometimes their working life spills over into their private life. The person who is always happy and jolly in the workplace might not be a happy or jolly person when he or she gets home.

The Health and Safety Executive’s draft health and work strategy for work-related stress identifies that 1.5% of the working population suffers from mental health issues, a figure that resulted in 11.7 million lost working days in 2015-16. That is another indication of how, if we improve the health ability of our workforce, we can save working days and thereby turn around the profitability of a company. Compare that figure with self-reported injuries: 4.9 million working days lost—the scale of workplace mental ill health is almost two and a half times the physical impact of unsafe workplaces and working practices. Clearly, something needs to be done. Perhaps the job of the Minister and his Department is to lead the way. Furthermore, it is suspected that at least a third of injuries go unreported, and the same is likely to be true for work-related stress.

The initiative “Mates in Mind” has identified that the suicide rate in the construction industry could be 10 times more than the rate for construction fatalities. If that estimation is true, we have a massive problem that needs to be addressed. I am pleased that the Government created a suicide prevention Minister—that is a direction we need to be moving in. That Minister is not present, but perhaps the Minister responding to this debate will also comment on that initiative.

In 2011, the then coalition Government developed “No Health Without Mental Health”, a cross-Government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages. It was a great idea, but it has not stopped the rise in the numbers of those with mental health issues. The document states how the Government want people to recognise mental health in the same way as they view physical and biological health.

The strategy also set out the aspiration of improved services for people with mental health issues. However, only an extra £15 million is expected to be pledged for creating places of safety and, with respect to the Minister, that amounts to only about £23,000 per parliamentary constituency. That is not a terrible lot per constituency—mine has a population of 79,000; I am not sure about the Minister’s constituency, but the average one has about 70,000, 75,000 or 80,000. If that is the case, that is about £3 per person, which does not really go anywhere towards addressing the issue.

According to the Centre for Mental Health, the financial cost to British business of mental ill health is an estimated £26 billion per annum, but positive steps to improve the management of mental health in the workplace can enable employers to save at least 30% of the cost of lost production and staff turnover. We are looking not only for the Government to do something but for companies to. It is important for companies to accept their responsibility—clearly, if they cut down on days lost to mental stress by making some changes, they thereby help themselves. If they can indeed save at least 30% of the cost of lost production and staff turnover, I say gently that it is an open-door policy and one that should be adopted right away.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any year. A common misconception is that mental health problems are only caused by issues at home—no, they are not—so some employers feel that it is not appropriate, or their responsibility, to intervene and provide support to employees. More commonly, the cause of an employee’s mental health problems is a combination of issues relating to both work and private lives.

To conclude, what I have sought today is not only to show in a small way support for the hon. Member for North Warwickshire but to seek Government intervention and help, and to raise company awareness. Companies have a clear role to play and one that they cannot ignore or not take responsibility for. I believe that the hon. Gentleman intended to demonstrate in his introduction to the debate that it is more cost-effective to take small steps to promote good mental health in the workplace, rather than having members of staff feeling like they cannot cope and going on the sick. We want to prevent that if possible.

I believe that enforced lunch breaks away from desks are an essential component, for example. It is all too easy for people to stay at their desks—my staff do it all the time. I was thinking about this before the debate: sometimes we ought to say to our staff, “Girls, go on down to the wee café there and take half an hour, 45 minutes or an hour, whatever it may be, away from the office”, because if they stay to eat their lunch, they also answer the phone. If someone comes in, they speak to them. I am not saying that they should not do that, but I am saying that the two—work and breaks—need to be divorced from each other.

I do not have all the answers but I do believe that we must do more—not because that is good for business, but for the sake of our one in four who are struggling with their mental health and who simply need help.