Theresa May’s mental health plan for the workplace

06Feb 17
Theresa May's mental health plan for the workplace

In January, the prime minister made some big announcements about mental health. What does this mean for mental health in the workplace? How should employers respond? Kamwell unpicks the plans and the likely implications

The headlines on 9th January were all about mental health, after Theresa May made a speech outlining her commitment to “transform mental health support in our schools, workplaces and communities”. In terms of the workplace, the most significant announcement was the launch of a review about how best to support employees with mental health problems at work. This review will be led by Lord Dennis Stevenson, former chairman of HBOS, and Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind.

On the same day, the government published its formal response to a five-year plan put forward by an independent taskforce into mental health last year, led by Mr Farmer. This actually contains the most meat on the bone, in terms of detail about plans and changes to current policy. Encouragingly, all 58 of the plan’s recommendations were accepted. The third announcement that day was by health secretary Jeremy Hunt, about new suicide prevention measures, and plans to support people at risk of self-harm.

It’s the review led by Lord Stevenson and Mr Farmer that will interest employers the most, as the issues it intends to investigate all impact on working practices and staff wellbeing. At the moment, there’s no deadline attached to this review, nor any measurable commitments to make changes in specific areas. But UK businesses would do well to take note of the areas which are going to come under scrutiny:

‘We are forming a new partnership with employers to support mental health in the workplace. This will ensure that employers have the support they need for employees with mental health conditions, and explore what practical help is needed, including promoting best practice, promoting learning for trailblazer employers, as well as making available free tools to businesses, whatever size they are, to assist with employee well-being and mental health; and we will develop a better understanding about the discrimination people with a mental health condition may face, in relation both to recruitment and retention and career progression, so we can then identify the best actions to take.’

The Government’s response to the ‘Five Year Forward View for Mental Health’

Lord Stevenson seems an appropriate choice for this position, given both his business experience, and his personal experience of mental health problems. He has spoken out about his history of depression (click here to listen to him talk to Evan Davis about it on BBC Radio 4), which at times he experienced while running a FTSE 100 company, and is the founding chair of a charity which supports research into mental health.  

As chief executive of Mind, and head of the independent taskforce members included representatives from national stakeholder organisations, mental health professional bodies, providers, commissioners and users of mental health services — that produced the five-year plan, Mr Farmer has detailed knowledge of every aspect of the mental health landscape in the UK. He’s also seen government initiatives come and go, so is exercising a cautious optimism about Mrs May’s plans:

“I welcome the Government’s response to the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health and am pleased that in general our recommendations have been accepted, in some cases with commitments that go beyond what we recommended. The key now is in the delivery.

“We will be keeping a close eye on the delivery of the Five Year Forward View and holding government to account on the promises made today.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, chair of the mental health taskforce, and co-lead of the government’s new review of mental health in the workplace

It’s also worth noting another commitment in the government’s response — ‘We will examine the best way for employers to register their commitment to the mental health of staff’. Last year, Mind launched its Workplace Wellbeing Index, which gives public recognition to an organisation’s commitment to workplace wellbeing. A similar scheme backed by the government would carry significantly more weight.

What else do employers and employees need to know?

  • An extra 29,000 people per year living with mental health problems will be helped to find or stay in work, thanks to increased access to psychological therapies. £47.7 million will be invested to double the number of employment advisors working in IAPT (the government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme) — there ought to be one employment advisor for every eight therapists. Recruitment for these new advisors will begin in April 2017.
  • Digital mental health services will be expanded, with £67.7m spent on a package so that people worried about stress, anxiety or more serious issues can go online, check their symptoms and access digital therapy.
  • The way that Employment Support Allowance works will be improved, to ensure better outcomes for those who receive it, in terms of both employment and health.
  • It’ll be interesting to see if the case for fiscal incentives makes it into Lord Stevenson and Mr Farmer’s review. The chief executive of EEF, which represents British manufacturers, argues that “Government must now use fiscal incentives to encourage employers to pay for health, wellbeing and medical interventions and allow it to be offset in the same way as other business expenses. Not only would this help take the pressure off the NHS but it would allow a speedier return to work. This would be a win-win for government, employees and employers.”
  • As regards discrimination towards people with mental health problems in the workplace, the TUC has concerns that Brexit could weaken the UK’s Equality Act 2010, which protects the rights of disabled. Currently, it’s only EU law that requires effective sanctions against businesses which do not comply with discrimination laws.

In summary, Mrs May’s intentions and the government’s plans regarding mental health in the workplace are encouraging. But there’s a lot to do, and although talking can help to reduce stigma, actions speak louder than words. Kamwell will be watching this space…

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