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Mental Health: Absence from Work

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:12 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 5:12 pm, 17th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank Craig Tracey for securing such an important and timely debate. Further, I thank him for his thoughtful speech. My friend Marion Fellows, who represents two places that she knows I am familiar with from my childhood, spoke incredibly bravely, which is no surprise, about her own battle with mental health in the workplace. Everyone in the Chamber will agree with her that prevention and early intervention must be the key when we are looking at all aspects of mental health.

As other cases that we have heard about have shown, for the one in four people who experience mental health issues there are serious consequences in all areas of their lives. Of course that includes work, which Jim Shannon said is where we spend most of our time—I am sure hon. Members agree. Right now, it is estimated that up to 5 million workers are experiencing a mental health condition, although we all acknowledge that it is difficult to quantify such numbers when we are talking about millions of people. Many are frightened to come forward, for a variety of reasons.

The human cost of the mental health epidemic we face is incalculable, and every individual deserves the treatment they need. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, research from Mind and others has shown that we can put a number to the cost of failure to fund our mental health services adequately. Poor mental health at work is estimated to cost taxpayers between £24 billion and £27 billion a year in NHS costs, benefit costs and lost tax revenue.

The costs for British businesses are also significant. Research from the insurance sector shows that it costs small and medium-sized enterprises £30,000 to replace a staff member in recruitment costs, training time and lost productivity. When 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems are losing their jobs each year, that is no small problem. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire also alluded to that figure. The total annual cost to the UK economy from our mental health crisis is an eye-watering £99 billion.

There is also a flip side. As the TUC points out, UK workers with mental health problems, despite often suffering illness, contributed £226 billion to UK GDP in 2016. Their work supports our economy and our society must support them. However, in so many cases of poor mental health at work there is a direct, negative link to Government policies. Many of the worst-affected professions are in our public services, which have suffered under austerity. For example, the Office for National Statistics has found that health and social careworkers—including those who treat others for mental health conditions—are at an especially high risk of experiencing poor mental health. It also found that low-income workers who do not earn enough to make ends meet, sometimes receiving a top-up via universal credit, are more than twice as likely to experience poor mental health as other workers. Not being able to put food on the table and being forced to rely on the shambolic universal credit system is enough to affect anybody’s mental health.

What about people in precarious work? Under this Government we have seen an explosion in the number of insecure workers: staff on zero-hours, temporary or agency contracts and workers forced to be self-employed so that employers do not have to take responsibility for their rights. Research from the GMB union—I declare an interest as a proud member of it—showed that more than 60% of precarious workers had suffered stress or anxiety as a result of their work or had been to work while unwell for fear of losing their pay or their job. Over a third would also struggle to cope with an unexpected bill for £500, with all the anxieties and stresses that creates.

Those with barely any employment rights have three options when it comes to their mental health. They can take days off unpaid, lose their insecure work due to their condition or suffer in silence, continuing to work as things get worse and worse. Seventy-eight percent of the workers the GMB spoke to had previously been in permanent employment. That is not flexible working; it is the new normal. The Prime Minister has declared that austerity is over and promised to tackle insecure work. The Budget will be the test of whether she means it.

Health Ministers have given us warm words but little action on mental health. The Farmer-Stevenson report made a number of recommendations on mental health and employers, which the Government claimed to support wholeheartedly. However, almost a year since its publication, how much action has there been? Several recommendations were addressed to the Government, including changes in the public sector and ensuring the NHS prioritises mental health. However, the NHS is crippled by cuts, and its own staff are suffering. For example, the GMB found that 39% of ambulance workers have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 12% took sick leave due to stress, anxiety, depression and related conditions in 2016-17, which totalled 80,000 sick days. Given that the chronic lack of funding for frontline mental health services has led to excessive waiting lists for even basic talking therapies, is it likely that those workers got timely and effective treatment as the Farmer-Stevenson report advocates?

The report also recommended an increased role for the Health and Safety Executive. However, instead of providing resources for its work, the Government have continued to cut its funding. In a particularly bitter irony, the HSE now has one of the highest levels of anxiety among its staff of any public service employer. Perhaps the Minister can tell us who will inspect the inspectors. What resources will go to the HSE and what progress has been made in implementing that specific recommendation?

One of the report’s key findings was that the stigma around mental health is still a barrier for employees seeking support. Other Members have alluded to that. The Conservative manifesto committed to

“extend Equalities Act protections against discrimination to mental health conditions that are episodic and fluctuating.”

That would protect people who have long-term mental conditions from discrimination, and people who have short-term episodes of poor mental health, such as those caused by bipolar disorder.

People with such life-changing conditions might be deemed by an employer not to meet the current Equality Act 2010 definition. In one case, a worker with bipolar disorder was stable on medication, but asked to start work a little later because of the effect of the medication. Their boss refused. Mental health charity Rethink advised the worker that they could take legal action, but they felt that would just cause more stress. With the stigma around complex conditions such as bipolar disorder, when will the Equality Act 2010 be extended so that people get the support they so desperately need?

Similarly, employers sometimes see making reasonable adjustments as doing someone a favour rather than meeting their legal obligations. I have heard this in my constituency surgeries—I suspect others have heard the same. Will the Minister tell us how the Department has been monitoring progress from employers on achieving their legal obligations and what it has done to ensure proper HR training and processes?

Given that people spend on average 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, the Government must ensure that employers prioritise health and wellbeing in their workplaces. The Government must also put their own house in order. Mental health services are still reeling from years of underfunding and we are all paying a price. It is high time this Government put their money where their mouth is.