Nikki Bond, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Seven ways employers and government can help workers with mental health problems thrive during the pandemic

11 March 2021

Inflexible and biased employment practices have long served as a barrier for people with mental health problems in finding jobs and progressing in work. And with people with mental health problems receiving typical annual incomes of £8,400 less than people without such conditions, we can’t afford to overlook the discrimination people face. The pandemic has exposed the consequences of the mental health income gap – people with mental health problems were more likely to be in a financially precarious position before the crisis and were more likely to experience hardship as a result of a drop in income. But, crucially the pandemic offers an opportunity for the government and employers to make positive changes and close the mental health income gap.

To explore the mental health income gap we launched the Mental Health and Income Commission, who in their final report Closing the gap outlined the urgent and targeted efforts that are required to support people with mental health problems in employment and avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. Read on to find out more.

Entrenched barriers to work

Symptoms of mental health problems can make managing full-time work difficult. People told us how they try to balance their mental health problems and their need for an income by working part-time.

“In one job I returned…[after a period of sickness absence] to a less demanding role and on a part-time basis. It helped enormously with my mental state in one way but caused more mental stress from a financial point of view.” Expert by experience

However, part-time roles are often lower-paid, meaning people can find it difficult to secure part-time positions with rates of payment proportionate to their skills and abilities.

The challenges for people with mental health problems do not cease once they’ve found work. Discriminatory employment practices can make it challenging to retain and progress in work too. People may require flexible working arrangements to support them to manage their mental health problems. However, over two-thirds of people who requested a reasonable adjustment from their employer to support their mental health said their request was rejected or only partly met.

What should employers do?

These are just some of the ways people with mental health problems face entrenched discrimination in the workplace. Some of these barriers, which had previously appeared insurmountable, have been overcome by employers in their response to the pandemic. Many organisations have acted quickly to implement flexible working arrangements and support employees in new ways. These changes have been welcomed by many employees, particularly those with mental health problems.

But, as we build back from the crisis, we must harness the progress made and ensure we do not simply return to old ways of working – which would further embed existing inequalities for people with mental health problems. To this end, the Mental Health and Income Commission made three immediate recommendations for employers to tackle entrenched barriers to work and progression for people with mental health problems: 

  • Support the mental health and incomes of staff while furloughed and when they return, by maintaining regular contact during furlough and routinely providing signposting to income maximisation and debt advice services when incomes are reduced.
  • Provide mental health training to line managers giving them the skills and resources to help better support employees. 
  • Offer roles flexibly by default maximises opportunities for employees to work in ways that suit their needs. Flexibility might include remote working, condensed hours or facilitating more breaks by reducing lunch hours.

What should the government do?

Recognising government’s role in addressing these barriers to recruitment, retention and progression, the Commission also set out recommendations for immediate action. The government must ensure progress made by employers is underpinned by systemic change too. The government should:

  • Introduce a right to flexible work during the crisis placing a duty on employers to facilitate all reasonable adjustment requests and strengthening people’s rights. This is particularly important during the pandemic when people may feel asking for an adjustment at a time of huge job insecurity and redundancies places them at risk.
  • Monitor outcomes for people with mental health problems by collecting data on employment and redundancy rates. Good data collection will allow us to understand if people with mental health problems are worse-affected by changes in the labour market during the crisis, and where necessary set appropriate targets to tackle this.
  • Raise the level of Statutory Sick Pay and make it a basic employment right for all workers during the crisis to ensure that existing inequalities between people with and without mental health problems are not exacerbated.
  • Make the Universal Credit uplift permanent to increase the level of benefit to people at a time of need, provide greater financial security and support the incomes of people on low-pay.

The Commission’s final report, Closing the gap, outlines these immediate recommendations as well as longer-term systemic changes needed in both the labour market and the benefits system to close the mental health income gap.