UK: One-Minute Briefs - A new mind-set needed on employing the mentally ill.

UK: One-Minute Briefs - A new mind-set needed on employing the mentally ill. - Work stress is commonplace but how much are mental health problems costing business? Around £10 billion a year, says Health Education Authority (HEA) research, in terms of los

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Work stress is commonplace but how much are mental health problems costing business? Around £10 billion a year, says Health Education Authority (HEA) research, in terms of lost production and employment.

With one-third of employees likely to have a mental health problem, it seems high time that employers started to sit up and take notice. The growing raft of compensation claims arising from mental ill health should deter most employers from pooh-poohing the problem.

Mental illness covers everything from minor depression to schizophrenia. Employers cannot prevent mental health problem but they can take steps to improve an unpleasant, stressful working environment that might bring on the symptoms. Statistics produced by a study at North East Essex Mental Health Trust show that stress is responsible for 25% of all work absences. 'Employers should take a more holistic approach,' says a spokesman for the HEA. 'They should look at organisational issues, making sure staff are consulted and that there are flexible working hours. It does not cost a lot of money but it can considerably reduce stress.'

Midland Bank is one of the organisations that claims to have taken steps to reduce unnecessary pressure. It runs a free confidential counselling service for employees and their families, for everything from alcoholism to depression. It also operates a rehabilitation process for staff members who have had a long-term absence from work for psychiatric reasons. The schemes, it says, are beneficial to company productivity.

Yet, while dealing with existing employees who develop mental health problems is one thing, taking on employees who have already had mental illness is another. No more than 13% of people with psychiatric problems are employed, compared with 31% of disabled people generally, says MIND, the mental health charity. 'Why do such findings not provoke outrage?' asks Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of the Employers' Forum on Disability.

The employment of people who have had mental illness is always treated as an afterthought, she says.

MIND cites the man who had a two-year break from work due to mental illness.

Subsequently applying for jobs, he got fewer positive responses when he admitted to his illness than when he lied and said he had been in prison.

Employers are short-sighted. 'It is a terrible waste of both talent and tax payers' money in terms of health and social security expenditure,' adds Judi Clements, MIND chief executive. The charity is calling on UK employers to take on 50,000 people with mental health problems, more than doubling current numbers.

Employers who are nervous of doing this should look to organisations such as Royal & SunAlliance. It has been working with The Clubhouse scheme, which arranges for local businesses to take people who have had a psychiatric problem into transitional employment.

Unemployment is a key factor in causing low self-esteem and mental illness.

For five years, Royal & SunAlliance's Ipswich offices have employed up to six people at any one time from the programme, on the same temporary contract and pay as other temporary staff. Crucially, the Clubhouse employees are doing real jobs rather than filling positions specially created for them. 'People from the scheme are as productive as any other member of staff,' says a Royal & SunAlliance spokesperson. 'In fact, many people are over-qualified for the jobs they are filling. As a company we gain from that, while they gain from getting a link back to the employment market.'

Employers that take responsibility for the mental health of their employees claim that their organisations see the benefit.

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