Haylie Page, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health
The benefits system has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic, which has exposed the fragility of our mental and financial health. Though the welfare system has received unprecedented additional funding from the government, in many ways, it is still falling short — and it’s the most vulnerable in society who are feeling the impact. Our latest report, ‘Closing the gap’, outlines the urgent changes the welfare system needs to better support the income of people experiencing mental health problems, and to help to close the mental health income gap.
If you can’t work due to illness and earn above £120 per week on average, the government provides Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) which is currently £95.85 per week – but there is a waiting period, which means this is only usually payable after three continuous days off work. Many experiencing mental health problems rely on this payment to financially support themselves through periods of poor mental health when they cannot work.
During the pandemic, many people who have previously never experienced mental health problems, have found themselves newly unwell, while others with pre-existing conditions have experienced worsening symptoms. The pandemic has taken a massive toll on our ability to work. More people have had to take time off from work to help manage their mental health and, where they cannot rely on more generous contractual sick pay, have had to rely on SSP.
However, rates of SSP were insufficient for people with mental health problems to afford essential outgoings pre-pandemic and the three day waiting period puts people at risk of financial hardship. Many people are therefore unable to afford taking the time off from work that they need, which can worsen symptoms, cause burnout and put their emotional wellbeing at risk.
To combat this, Money and Mental Health are urging the government to immediately increase the amount of SSP available to people unable to work due to illness. Additionally, payments should begin from day one of sickness, to prevent people missing out for the first few days of being unwell — which could further financial difficulty, and worsen mental health. Finally, the eligibility threshold of earning at least above £120 per week to receive SSP should be lowered, so that people who earn less than that can still access this support. That’s particularly important as people with mental health problems are disproportionately represented in lower-paying roles, which could prevent them from receiving SSP at all.
When people are too unwell to work for extended periods of time, they can fall out of work altogether. Every year, 300,000 people with mental health problems lose their jobs due to poor mental health. If too unwell to work, people may have to depend upon benefit payments, like Universal Credit (UC). Moving from employment to benefits can mean a huge drop in income, and for many adjusting to this can be almost impossible.
During the pandemic the government provided a financial lifeline, a temporary £20 per week increase to UC. However, currently this uplift is due to end in March — which will total a loss of an extra £1000 a year and cause immense financial hardship. We are therefore urging the government to seize the opportunity to make this uplift permanent, and positively impact the income and the lives of many people on benefits.
The increase to UC payments was not extended to the millions of people on legacy benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Over half (51%) of people claiming ESA experience a mental health or behavioural problem. The government should extend the uplift on UC to legacy benefits — and make it permanent. Without this support being extended to legacy benefits, people with mental health problems will continue to lose out on income and the mental health income gap will be reinforced.
For those who rely on benefits, sanctions pose an additional threat to income. To access certain benefits, people must agree to meet certain commitments around preparing for or looking for work (known as ‘conditionality’). Not doing so carries the risk of being sanctioned, and subsequent cuts to benefits.
Adhering to conditionality requirements can be particularly difficult for people experiencing mental health problems. Our report ‘The benefits assault course’ showed that the threat of sanctions has a damaging psychological impact, and removing people’s income for failing to meet conditions, can worsen mental health.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, conditionality was temporarily paused by the government. But, it has now resumed — which risks worsening people’s emotional and financial well-being during an already uncertain time. We are calling for the government to suspend conditionality for another six months to reduce the additional pressure this adds to people with mental health problems relying on the benefits system.
Explore the findings of our Mental Health and Income Commission work in our visual data tool.