Helen Undy, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health

Does the Stevenson / Farmer review of mental health and employers go far enough?

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already have an interest in mental health. While we love to believe that our content can ‘cut through’ and reach new audiences, most of the time the social media echo-chamber means that we’re talking to people who already know the subject – and who probably agree with us.

For this reason, it can be easy to be fooled into thinking that mental health is now fairly mainstream. As someone working in mental health it seems to me that everyone’s talking about it, as though Mental Health Awareness Week is only just over when World Suicide Prevention Day appears, closely followed by World Mental Health Day and Time to Talk day. So when the Stevenson / Farmer review of mental health and employers came out yesterday, I will admit that my initial reaction was to be slightly underwhelmed. The review calls on every employer to do things like ‘encourage conversations’, ‘develop awareness’ and ‘produce…a mental health at work plan’. My immediate thought was, is this going far enough? Are more awareness days and stigma-busting coffee mornings really going to help?

Getting some perspective

But stepping outside the mental health bubble for a minute, for most people, in most jobs, the unfortunate truth is that talking about mental health at work is still pretty radical. Calling in sick with depression is not as straightforward as saying you have flu. Most workplaces don’t know how to support an employee who is living with mental health problems, and the review itself highlights that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs every year.

So while it may not feel like the boldest action plan, that’s probably the Stevenson / Farmer review’s strength, rather than its weakness. These standards are designed to be straightforward, so that they can apply to every organisation, from local taxi firms to schools, from factories to building sites, investment banks to cafes. From places where talking about mental health is pretty bog-standard, to places where the ‘m’ word is only used to describe the boss behind their back. And if it works, that would be pretty radical.

A new model for sick pay

At Money and Mental Health, our research found that one of the most significant ways in which people’s mental health causes financial difficulty is through time off work – often starting a cycle of debt and poor mental health that can be hard to break. So anything that can help people to stay in work where they are well enough to do so, to manage financially when they’re not, and to get back to meaningful employment in the future, can only be a good thing.

With this in mind, one recommendation in the report that stands out is the suggestion that government introduce a more flexible model for sick pay, allowing employees to make a phased return to work without paying a penalty. For many people, a manageable way to return to work is to gradually build working hours back up, rather than starting full-time. But as soon as you return to work you become ineligible for sick pay – even if you’re only earning a fraction of your salary for working part time – and if you work more than 16 hours per week (or earn £120), you’ll become ineligible for Employment Support Allowance too. That means, for many people, a phased return to work is prohibitively expensive, leaving them worse off than when they weren’t working. Allowing an employee to be paid both sick pay and their salary pro-rata for a period of time would be a practical way to help break the link between mental health problems and financial difficulty.

What we’d like to see in those workplace plans

Finally, a note for employers. The instruction to ‘produce a mental health at work plan’ leaves quite a lot of room for interpretation. Yes, plans about raising awareness and supporting staff with mental health problems are very important, but at Money and Mental Health, we’d like to see employers go a step further. We’d like to see employers getting to grips with the risk factors for poor mental health amongst their employees too.

Is low or fluctuating pay, insecure work or debt affecting your employees’ mental health? One in four employees is experiencing financial insecurity, where a simple unexpected cost like a broken down car can cause real distress. And it’s not just money; long working hours, difficult relationships and poor physical health can all cause mental health problems too. While being able to talk about that distress at work might help to alleviate it, it’s not going to prevent it from happening again next time. So, as a likely fellow member of the ‘mental health echo-chamber’, you’re well placed to take some slightly more radical steps. Yes, we can deal better with the consequences of poor mental health, but let’s try tackling the causes too.