Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

Health is everyone’s business: a disappointing response for people with mental health problems

22 July 2021

With all that’s happened since July 2019 now feels a world away. Back then, the government published a consultation, with a set of proposals intended to “reduce ill health-related job loss”. It’s an important topic for people with mental health problems, who are less likely to be in employment than the rest of the population. Two years later, and with the link between health and work more topical than ever, the government has issued its response. Unfortunately, it represents a backward step from the original ideas and risks forgetting some of the pandemic’s most important lessons before they’ve even been learned.

No expansion of Statutory Sick Pay

The most confounding of these decisions is on Statutory Sick Pay – the minimum amount employers are required to pay employees who are off sick. At just over £96 per week, it is not generous. But for those earning less than £120 per week, including many people working part time, current rules mean they are ineligible even for this payment. The 2019 consultation expressed the government’s concern at this gap and asked for views on removing this lower limit. People with mental health problems were one of the main groups who would benefit from such a move, with part-time work helpful in allowing people to manage their mental health needs and employment. The consultation response shows that the proposal had wide support, including from both small and large employers. 

Despite this, the government has opted against action, claiming it is “not the right time to introduce changes to the sick pay system”. While many employers have faced extraordinarily tough circumstances over the past 16 months, the logic of the government’s original proposal – that the 2 million workers on the lowest wages might be especially in need of such support – is more true than ever. Failing to act on this issue will continue to leave millions of low earners facing incredibly difficult trade-offs between their health and their finances.

No right to request modifications in work

While some businesses continued on pretty much as normal since the start of the pandemic, in others, employees will soon be returning to their place of work for the first time in over a year. For those doing so, particularly those who have experienced mental health problems, this could be a daunting prospect. Making adjustments to the hours you work, the tasks you carry out, the equipment you have access to and your wider environment can be helpful in reducing some of the stress people may be feeling and making the day-to-day experience of work less difficult. 

The government’s proposal to introduce a “new right to request work(place) modifications on health grounds” then could have played a timely role in delivering a necessary change. Instead, this move has also been shelved, due to concerns that doing so might “legitimise refusing requests for adjustments and detract from the positive duty on employers [under the Equality Act] to make reasonable adjustments”. 

While a new right could overlap with the Equality Act, once again the government’s instincts in the original proposal were correct. In polling we commissioned in December last year, only 15% of respondents with a mental health problem had ever requested a reasonable adjustment related to their mental health problem, and of those who had, two-thirds (68%) said their requests were either rejected or only partly met. With the burden on employees to ask for help, and gaps and uncertainties in terms of who exactly is covered by the Equality Act – those with undiagnosed or short-term conditions may miss out – the current approach is insufficient. But the government’s new idea – to “consider measures to raise awareness and understanding around existing rights and responsibilities under the Equality Act” – feels weak and unlikely to deliver the scale of change that’s needed.

Other proposals on the horizon

Beyond these u-turns, there are other areas in which the government has shown more of a willingness to act. Improving the information available to employers, including around post-Covid returns to work, should be helpful, particularly for smaller organisations without dedicated HR teams. Similarly, small employers and the self-employed may also benefit from a subsidy to access Occupational Health – services to help staff stay healthy and recover from ill-health – which will be tested and evaluated.

Another potential source of progress could be the health and disability green paper, published alongside the consultation response. We’ll be exploring its ideas and responding over the coming weeks, and anyone with an opinion and interest in these issues can respond here. But when it comes to reducing job loss stemming from poor health, it feels like a wasted two years and a missed opportunity.