Theresa May promised to tackle the ‘burning injustice’ of mental health. For the sake of employees, their families and businesses, she must turn that promise into action, writes Lizzy Dobres
Today is World Mental Health day, and we are reminded once again that one in four of us will suffer a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Given that most of us spend the majority of our adult lives at work, it is very likely our mental health will interfere with our work at some point.
The theme of World Mental Health day is workplace wellbeing. The link between work and mental health often goes even further; poor working conditions, low pay and long hours have been shown to damage our mental health.
This is not just bad for employees and their families, its bad for businesses’ bottom lines. It costs the taxpayer more. It is in everyone’s interest for employers to create working environments that are conducive to good mental health.
Despite stories in recent months about brave workers taking days off for their mental health, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health in the workplace. If we have the flu or food poisoning, most of us would not hesitate to take the time off to recover. Taking time off for your mental wellbeing is another story.
All of our workplaces have plans in place to accommodate physical illness. But if you suffer from severe anxiety, there just is not the framework to communicate to your boss that you cannot come in.
Mind found in their recent survey that only 49 per cent of people felt their employers supported their mental health. Even fewer people – 41 per cent – felt that their organisation encouraged them to talk about their mental health. We have to have more open conversations about mental health in the workplace.
Caring about mental health benefits UK businesses. But not caring can be detrimental. The cost of poor mental health to business is a staggering £26 billion per year. The Mental Health Foundation found that one in five people take a day off work each year due to stress, and in the last six years the number of working days lost to mental health has increased by 24 per cent.
Companies are taking steps to promote better working conditions for mental health. For example, Microsoft recently launched a new design of benefit programmes that incorporate four ‘wellbeing pillars’, financial, physical, mental and social wellbeing. Schemes like this benefit both the employer and the employee, if staff feel supported, they are less likely to have to take days off later down the line.
Taking workplace mental health seriously benefits taxpayers too.
We know that prevention is absolutely vital to this; if people feel they are supported in work and could access help if they needed it can often stop mental health issues even developing. But if people do need help further help, we must have the right NHS mental health services available.
The government must step up to tackle its share of the problem.
At the moment we simply do not have the mental health services we need. Less than 25 per cent of people will access talking therapies by 2020. The government are letting so many people down that desperately need help.
Theresa May has acknowledged tine and time again we need to provide better mental health services. But, so far all we have heard are quick-fix solutions, from mental health awareness to mental health first aiders. Or, even worse, that money promised just is not getting through to the frontline.
Raising awareness is great but we need the services to back it up. If a mental health first aider identifies a serious mental health problem in the workplace, what happens next? They may be able to signpost people to services, but what if there are no services for that person to access? This increases demand on an already overstretched system.
Employers are getting better at being more mental health friendly. Big companies are already investing in mental health strategies for their employees. But if this is going to be a reality for everyone, the government must lead by example.
Employers and the government must work much harder, and more closely together, to make sure everyone has the support they need.
We have heard the government say over and over that it will transform mental health services and will tackle it as a ‘burning injustice’ in our society. How serious does it have to get before it turns empty words into action?
Lizzy Dobres works for a mental health charity as Policy Officer for UK Council for Psychotherapy. She tweets at @LizDobres