19 February 2014 12:08

The Work Foundation hosted the launch last week (10th February) of the OECD’s new report looking at the way the UK supports people in the labour market who are living with mental illness. 

The report takes a look, from the outside in, at how coherent and well-executed UK policy and practice appears, in comparison with eight other developed OECD countries which have also been part of the study.

Overall, the message seems to be that the UK is good at measuring the problem of mental health at work and equally good at putting together policy documents and pilot schemes but quite poor at turning all of this insight and good intention into well-executed practice on the ground.

The first issue is that, compared with other OECD countries, the mental health problem in the UK is substantial. As the report says, up to 370,000 Britons move onto disability benefit every year (1% of the working-age population), the highest rate in the developed world and twice the OECD average. The leading cause for such benefit claims is mental illness which now accounts for around 40% of all new claims.

Secondly, the report is critical of the success so far of the Work Programme in spotting clients with mental illness, having the expertise to support them, and providing the kinds of incentives to place people with mental illness into sustained employment. The OECD suggests that this situation is reviewed as success rates for clients with mental illness are lower than other groups.

Thirdly, the report argues that early intervention – preferably while people are still in work – should be prioritised. While it welcomes the new Health and Work Service (HWS) – which, coincidentally, was the subject of considerable media coverage recently, 13 months after it was originally announced – but urges that it should have a specific focus on mental illness and should be adequately funded. It also highlights that the NHS could also provide more, and more consistent, support for people with mental illness who risk leaving work.

Finally, the report argues that employers should play a much bigger part in supporting employees with mental illness. Despite a growth in awareness, workplace stigma remains a challenge and the OECD says that the excellent practice among a handful of large UK businesses should not mask the fact that most UK employers do little, if anything. Worse still, the authors point at the strong evidence that ‘People with a severe or moderate mental disorder on average report having: less autonomy in their work; higher job insecurity; and poorer job promotion prospects’.

This suggests that The Work Foundation’s regular calls for a clearer focus on ‘Good Work’ are just as relevant to the debate about workforce health as they are to meeting other challenges such as low productivity. Only last week, our report on ‘Constrained Work’ highlighted the challenges of poor job quality and the benefits which would accrue if employers did more to enrich jobs and improve the psychosocial quality of work.

Having spoken last month at the launch of the OECD’s report about Mental Health and Work in Switzerland, I know that it is possible to paint a very positive – even self-congratulatory - picture of the ‘architecture’ of data, policy and support which the UK is building which are all excellent and essential. However, until we rise to the challenges of execution posed by this insightful OECD report, the UK risks being a victim of its own rhetoric.

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