Mental health issues are getting a lot of attention in this morning’s media, rare for a subject that is often taboo.
Ed Miliband leads the way with a broadside at celebrities who make light of mental illness, as he unveils plans to tackle what he calls “the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age”. He will argue that the failure to address mental health is blighting the lives of millions, adding £10 billion to annual NHS spending and costing business £26bn a year in reduced productivity, sickness absence and the cost of replacing staff who can no longer work. He says, “Politicians have been far too silent about mental health, part of a taboo running across our society, which infects both our culture and our politics.”
Dr Steve Boorman follows this up with a piece in the Scotsman on presenteeism. He argues that presenteeism costs UK companies up to £15 billion a year. Employers often forget that unwell people attending work can potentially cost the firm more money than a sick person who is absent. Drawing on his own experience at Royal Mail he concludes:
“These results were not achieved by targeting the sick, lame and wounded and forcing them to work but as a result of management practices promoting employee well-being. Employees were provided with better support and care when illness arose, alongside a policy to improve engagement, which enabled managers to control absence and hit their targets.”
This view is supported by a survey done by UNISON Scotland earlier this year. We asked members about working when ill and why they did it, then about their employers sickness absence policy and how it dealt with the biggest cause of sickness absence, stress. They said:
• Almost exactly a quarter (25%) have worked in the last month when really too ill. Around 60% worked when ill in the last year.
• More than a quarter (27%) did so because concerned that manager would take action against them. Most of the rest for the altruistic reasons such as letting colleagues or service users down.
• Nearly a half (47%) say the sickness policy at work encourages people to work when they really shouldn't. One in seven (14%) say the policy at their workplace is "unfair". A quarter (26%) say it is badly implemented by management.
• 60% say there is a stress policy in place but it is not effective - a further 28% say there is no stress policy at all.
Last Friday, at UNISON Scotland’s safety conference, we heard from the mental health charity SAMH about mental health at work. They highlighted that three in every ten employees will have a mental health problem in any year, making mental health the dominant health problem among people of working age. The business case for tackling this is overwhelming with output losses of over £2bn last year or £950 per employee.
The solutions include recognition, prevention, early identification of emerging problems, awareness training, access to professional health and effective rehabilitation.
So let’s welcome this new political focus on mental health and recognise that effective action in the workplace is long overdue.