helenaBy Helena Brice

Last week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released an in-depth report Mental Health and Work United Kingdom looking at how mental health affects the UK economy. The report recognises that mental ill health is a major problem for social and labour market policy and that it is a problem creating significant costs for people, employers and the economy.

The report notes that the UK is among the most advanced countries in terms of awareness about costs of mental illness for society as a whole, as well as the benefits employment brings for a person’s mental health.

Centre for Mental Health has helped shape thinking in this crucial area. We have released numerous papers looking at the economic impact of mental ill health on the workforce. In 2007, we estimated that mental ill health costs UK business nearly £26 billion each year. The OECD paper estimates that the cost to Britain as a whole was some £70 billion.

The OECD paper draws attention to shortcomings in the way we support people with mental health problems to get and keep paid work. We hope the Government will consider the report’s recommendations in full and build a more effective system of health and employment support for people who are out of work and have mental health difficutlies.

An encouraging aspect of the report is that many of the recommendation are in the process of being implemented.

This includes a proposal to improve employment support and access to psychological therapies for those with a common mental health problem who are out of work. This was pledged by the government in its Mental Health Action Plan released last month. The new Health and Work Advisory Service can also help to support more people who are off sick to get back into work rather than losing their jobs. A further challenge remains, however, about how to support people when they are first unwell, often long before they take time off sick, to help them to get access to treatment more quickly and prevent a protracted period of sickness absence.

The OECD’s report also recommends that GPs knowledge of mental health and work issues needs to be improved as they play a key role in both the health and benefit systems. The majority of people with a mental health problem will not see mental health services and will instead be looked after by their GP. A proposal from the Royal College of GPs for family doctors to get a year’s extra training, including a greater focus on mental health, could help to improve this. But it is also crucial that GPs are given up-to-date information about the help that’s available for people now, such as Access to Work funding for ‘reasonable adjustments’ at work.