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Mental Health: Absence from Work

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:03 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation) 5:03 pm, 17th October 2018

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate Craig Tracey on securing this debate and on speaking so passionately and eloquently, and with such knowledge of this subject.

I have been in the position of being off work long term with stress, which is a mental health issue. I was in the fortunate position of being on full pay. A colleague of mine—a fellow college lecturer—was also off long term with stress but she did not want to admit to her employer the real reason why she was off sick long term. It still requires a great deal of courage for someone to admit that they have a mental health issue. As usual, Jim Shannon gave us a very good picture of what is going on in Northern Ireland, and concentrated on the economic case for dealing well with this issue. Employers have a part to play.

Hon. Members would not expect me to do anything but talk about Scotland—that is my role here, because there is some good work going on in Scotland on this issue. I am sure the Minister knows of some of it, and I would like to draw it to his attention. In the workplace, mental health issues can have a serious impact on the morale of employees: those suffering from the mental health issues, and their colleagues who pick up the additional workload. They can have an impact on an organisation’s productivity and profitability, through overtime costs and recruitment of temporary or permanent cover. Absence from work due to mental health issues is thought to cost the UK economy £35 billion per annum. We can play with those numbers but it is still a huge amount of money. A total of 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health problems. The scale of workplace mental ill health is almost 2.5 times the physical impact of unsafe workplaces and working practices.

In January 2016, the Conservative Prime Minister pledged to

“tackle the stigma around mental health problems.”

I am sure she really meant it. She also pledged an extra £50 million, expected to be used to create places of safety, which, as was mentioned, is about £23,000 per parliamentary constituency—not nearly enough. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said in September that it was “sceptical” about the Government’s attempt to improve mental health services without a significant amount of extra cash.

Providing support for employees is very important for the individual concerned. There is a strong business case for getting it right on mental health at work. We must eliminate stigma and discrimination in work. That requires a joined-up approach and a genuine commitment to support staff and to make it okay to talk about mental health. The Scottish Government funds the “See Me in Work” programme, which aims to support organisations to improve the working lives of employees with mental health problems, to encourage an equal and clear recruiting process and to ensure that those returning to work following ill health are fully supported back into the workplace.

The Scottish Government are working with employers on how they can best act to protect and improve mental health, and to support employees experiencing poor mental health. That will help employers to identify and provide appropriate training opportunities. To support workplace mental health and wellbeing makes economic sense for businesses. The Scottish Government are exploring with others innovative ways of connecting mental health, disability and employment support in Scotland. That will allow individuals to more easily navigate the current fragmented and complex landscape of support, allowing them to find a way to support at an early enough stage to make a real difference to their ability to sustain or return quickly to paid work when they encounter problems.

When I had my experience, everyone around me knew that I had a problem; I was in the middle of it and did not know. We need to look after each other when we are in such a situation. People who develop poor mental health should receive support to stay in work, just as they would if they had physical health problems. The Scottish Government endorsed “Good Mental Health For All”, which was published by NHS Health Scotland in 2016.

Issues that can contribute to inequalities that can lead to poor mental health include low pay and working poverty. The Scottish Government believe in promoting fair work and the real living wage. The real living wage as defined by the Scottish Government is £8.75 an hour. The UK promotes a living wage, for over-25s only, of only £7.83. People who are in employment but who are not earning enough to sustain themselves and their families often find themselves with bad mental health, because of the sheer pressure on their daily lives due to low wage employment.

We need to look early at preventive mechanisms, so that subsequent generations will be able to enter and remain in work. As with most systemic problems, the earlier we can get to people to help them, the better for all concerned. Prevention and early intervention are key to minimising both the prevalence and incidence of poor mental health and the severity and lifetime impact of mental disorders and mental illnesses. Prevention and early intervention must be a focus of activity and funding. The Scottish Government are funding an improved provision of services to treat mental health problems among children and adolescents so that, when they grow older, they can cope better with their illnesses in the workplace. Teaching our children resilience from an early age will help with mental health issues over a whole lifetime.

In December 2017, the Scottish Government announced a £95,000 investment in a youth commission on mental health, which will be delivered in partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health and Young Scot. It launched formally in April. As reported by the mental welfare commission for Scotland in 2016, there has been an improvement—a lower incidence of young people being admitted to non-specialist wards—and we want to see that continue. Mental health really deserves parity of esteem with physical health.

Mental ill health accounts for the biggest cohort of people unable to work due to sickness, yet that cohort has the poorest outcomes from the Department for Work and Pensions-contracted Work programme. The Department’s own evaluation of the Work programme suggests that it is not leading to the provision of appropriate specialist support. Instead, people with more complex needs are often parked by providers. The activities that people are asked to do are often inappropriate, with their conditions not being taken into account. That leads to a higher turnover of staff and more days off. Both employers and employees are incurring costs from the UK Government’s Work programme, which in many cases is shambolic.

The UK Government should scrap their work capability assessments so that people with mental health problems are better able to enter the workforce in jobs suitable for their needs. The current isolated nature of the WCA means that it functions as an eligibility test for employment and support allowance but not an assessment of what support is needed.

No Government can ignore the financial effect of absence from work due to mental ill health. I look forward to the Minister’s response to some of the issues raised today.