Brian Semple is Money and Mental Health’s Head of External Affairs.

Report launch: Too ill to work, too broke not to

8 November 2018

What happens when you’re too unwell to work because of poor mental health, but you can’t afford the income-drop that time off work could bring?

As our latest report ‘Too Ill to Work, Too Broke not to’ shows, for too many people this can spell serious financial hardship – from falling behind on bills, to going without food or even being at risk of becoming homeless.

To explore these problems and how they can be addressed, we brought together experts on employment, financial services and mental health – including people with lived experience –  for our report launch event last week.

Our Director Helen Undy kicked off proceedings by outlining the report’s findings in more detail. She noted that while there has been important work in recent years on how to better support people with their mental health in the workplace, there will nonetheless be times when people are too unwell to stay in a job even with the best support. In fact, our research shows that over 2 million people across the UK are currently living with mental health problems that limit the amount of paid work they can do – and many face severe financial difficulties as a result.

Helen outlined some of the report’s recommendations on how the government and employers can better support people in this position. They include making sick pay more flexible, to allow preventative, part-time sick leave as well as phased returns to work; and increasing Employment Support Allowance for people coming off Statutory Sick Pay, to help them avoid dramatic falls in their income.

Next up was Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and author of the ‘Good Work’ review, which among many other things looked at how sick pay could be reformed to better support people in the modern labour market.

Matthew suggested that our report reflects a broader shift among policy-makers towards recognising the importance of ‘good work’ in the UK’s social and political agenda. He argued that we should not lose sight of the intrinsic value that rewarding employment can offer in terms of supporting people with their wellbeing. However, he also suggested that people need more flexibility in how they balance their job with other demands in their lives – including their mental health – if they are fully enjoy the social and psychological benefits that quality work can provide.

Matthew was followed by Sarah James, a member of our Research Community, who spoke powerfully about the “phenomenal personal stress” she has faced due to financial hardships resulting from time off work with poor mental health. She described how when she first had to take sick-leave from a previous job as a youth worker, she received nether sick pay nor any advice about available financial support such as benefits. – leaving her in a “catastrophic” position.

Sarah also highlighted the need for more flexible and tailored return-to-work support, noting how on one occasion when she was returning to work as a social worker, she was expected to manage a full caseload within a matter of weeks. This was too much too soon after being unwell, but she felt she had no choice because of her fears of falling into debt.

Our fourth speaker at the event was Sophie Corlett, Director of External relations at Mind. Sophie suggested that as a society, we have become more open about mental health problems, which has made it easier for people to talk to their employers about the flexibility they might need in the workplace – but that for many people this remains a serious challenge. She also discussed the report findings in light of the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, which also called on the the government to introduce a more flexible model of sick pay – a policy gap which our report recommendations seek to address.

Finally, Steve Bridger, Managing Director of Group Protection at Aviva, spoke of why the company had chosen to support the research. He pointed out that as insurer, poor mental health is they key reason they see people fall out out of work. He also discussed the importance Aviva places on offering the best possible support to its own staff when it comes to mental health, and how research like ours can help improve that support.

We hope this event will spark many more conversations with people working in employment policy, mental health and financial services, about improving support for people who are too unwell to work, and preventing the income shocks that they too often face.  

You can read the full report here.