It is distressing to learn from a report commissioned by Theresa May that there are around 300,000 people in this country who leave their jobs every year because of mental health problems. The report also concludes that poor mental health costs the economy costs the country £99 billion a year. No, not £99 million a year: £99 billion a year. Given that we spend £116 billion a year on the entire NHS, this is not a trifling figure.
I’d imagine that the £99 billion figure is a guesstimate, founded on a great deal of evidence. I have numerous friends who are, or have been, under the shadow of the black dog. Mrs May means business. She says: “We need to take action!” No shit, Sherlock. I was surprised that she didn’t start the sentence with “Let me be clear”, which is a sure sign that she is going to be anything but clear. She has, at least, offered her own civil service as a guinea pig. Very encouraging. For the record, the civil service managers I encountered, especially those in the last 20 years or so, were outstanding, so perhaps they are starting from an already high point?
The review recommends the following steps for employers:
Create a mental health at work plan
Build mental health awareness by making information and support accessible
Encourage open conversations
Provide good working conditions and ensure employees have a healthy work-life balance
Promote effective people management, with line managers holding regular conversations about health and well-being with their staff
Routinely monitor employee mental health
This replaces the earlier guidance which was as follows:
Regard mental health as a trifling issue and tell staff to pull themselves together
Ensure managers have no idea, nor interest, in mental health. Keep people in the dark
Keep it to yourself
Ensure staff are given as little flexibility as possible, drain all their confidence and remove their self-esteem.
Keep quiet. It will go away.
Have token policies on mental health but don’t bother to implement them
I’m joking about the earlier guidance! No employer would deliberately issue guidance like that, would they? But why are so many mentally ill people leaving work, nearly a million every three years? They’d want their employees to be well and capable of doing their jobs, wouldn’t they? Of course they would.
Mrs May said: “It is only by making this an everyday concern for everyone that we change the way we see mental illness, so that striving to improve your mental health – whether at work or at home – is seen as just as positive as improving our physical well-being.” As ever, I am not entirely convinced by the words she uses, especially with the bizarre assertion that people are “striving to improve (their) mental” health”. I don’t want to be too hard on her, particularly because she is herself so utterly useless, but what on earth is that supposed to mean? The more I read it, the less sense it makes. I am desperate to get better, even if it’s just a little bit better. But how can I strive? There is nothing to strive for, save going on a lengthy waiting list for mental health treatment or taking even more pills. Perhaps, in Tory language, that makes me a clinically depressed skiver? I suggest May’s heart is probably in the right place. It’s just her head that’s struggling to keep up.
Still, well done to the BBC and indeed the government for highlighting this issue. I am a Class A cynic and I suspect we’ll hear nothing for a year until the government does a reboot sometime in 2018, confirming again that “something must be done”. The reason for my cynicism is simple: money. If services were better funded – and it was May’s Tory government which slashed mental health funding – then the country’s collective mental health would improve. As it is now, this country operates what is effectively an apartheid system of mental health whereby only the better off can access therapy, counselling and other forms of treatment and assistance. The rest of us can go hang. The rest of us is most of us.
The final words are from Paul Farmer, the CEO of the mental health charity MIND: “Opportunities are missed to prevent poor mental health and ensure that employees who may be struggling get the support they need. In many instances employers simply don’t understand the crucial role they can play, or know where to go for advice and support.”
Amen to all that. But will things really get better? I don’t believe a word.