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Mental health: Loss of work flexibility is ‘huge worry’ for 5m workers

The Mental Health and Income Commission warns changes need to be made to help people living with poor mental health to return to offices

Five million Brits are “dreading” the return to offices, according to campaigners who are calling for more flexible working to help people living with mental health problems.

The Mental Health and Income Commission’s report recommended systemic employment reforms to stamp out inflexible and discriminatory work practices that have left millions fearful of stepping back into workplaces once the pandemic is over.

Changes to sick pay, flexible working and how employers report the “mental health income gap” are required to stop people with mental health problems earning £8,400 less than the rest of the population every year.

The Commission’s report found flexible working to be beneficial for alleviating mental health problems such as chronic depression, allowing workers time for self-care that is difficult to replicate in an office environment.

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Helen Undy, chief executive of charity Money and Mental Health Policy Institute which leads the commission, said: “If the government is serious about ‘building back better’, it must address the employment barriers that are leaving many people with mental health problems dreading a return to normal after the pandemic.

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“The way the country has adapted to home working and other flexible arrangements has proved that we can do it. For millions of people with poor mental health, the idea of going back to business-as-usual — and losing this flexibility — is a huge worry.”

The Commision – a panel of experts from the worlds of business, politics, trade unions and mental health – found greater flexibility from employers in lockdown has benefited people living with poor mental health. 

More than four in ten people with mental health problems say they are worried about returning to their usual working arrangements after lockdown, compared to just under a third of the wider workforce.

The way the country has adapted to home working and other flexible arrangements has proved that we can do it

Minister for Disabled People Justin Tomlinson encouraged people who need support to stay in work to use the Government’s Access to Work scheme, which includes grants for special equipment, adaptations or support worker services.

Tomlinson said: “We understand that some people may be anxious about returning to the workplace after lockdown, but additional help is available for those who need it.

“Access to Work is helping over 43,000 disabled people stay in work, including record numbers with a mental health condition. This free specialist mental health support is also on offer for those who are working from home.”

Flexibility has been vital for Sarah Brightwell, 45, who has been living with depression since her teens.

The Southampton mum-of-two, who also suffers from arthritis, currently works as a part-time project coordinator for Citizens Advice told The Big Issue that working from home has allowed her to fit her mental health needs around her work.

“I find it very hard to work full time, I get really, really tired,” said Sarah. “And if I get overtired. I’ve been looking at options for career development the last few years, and there’s very little in the senior roles that are part-time.

“My employer has been really flexible during the pandemic and if I need to go and lie down for half an hour in the middle of the day I can.

“And that’s the thing that will make all the difference between me getting through the day and feeling alright at the end of it. I actually find it really helpful to work from home.”

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Sarah has relied on Universal Credit payments and Personal Independence Payments to top up her wage in order to look after her children aged 16 and 17 alongside help from her partner, who lives next door to her.

She added that the £20 Universal Credit increase has made a “massive difference” and joined campaigners in calling on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the uplift.

But on the work front, Sarah told The Big Issue she fears her mental health needs will hold her back in the future as the jobs market continues to be hit during the pandemic.

“I’m already constrained anyway and then obviously, with rising unemployment, fewer jobs I will be more constrained,” she said. “I don’t think my job is at risk but it’s definitely going to limit me even further.

“I think creating part-time jobs is something businesses need to look at how they can do that. But I would like to see them making an effort to do that.”

The flexibility Sarah has received is not always in place. The Commision report found two thirds of people with mental health problems who have ever asked an employer for adjustments to their working week said their requests were either rejected or only partly met.

One in five people with mental health problems — equivalent to 3.7 million people across the UK — say they have suffered workplace discrimination due to their mental health,including being passed over for promotion or being made redundant.

My employer has been really flexible during the pandemic and if I need to go and lie down for half an hour in the middle of the day I can

The Commission recommends the UK Government introduce a right to flexible working for all employees during the pandemic to keep people in work despite mental health struggles. The experts warn the current right to flexible work can be easily rejected by employers.

Other emergency measures include boosting Statutory Sick Pay and opening it up to workers who earn less than £120 per week as well as requiring employers to report on the mental health pay gap and flexible working requests.

“People with mental health problems have been more likely to be on low incomes for decades. The pandemic has not only exposed this inequality, it looks set to make it worse. We’re calling for urgent action from the government to put this right.” added MMHPI’s Helen Undy. 

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, also insisted reporting on the “mental health pay gap” could highlight areas of improvement to stop people falling out of work due to mental health.

Mamo said: “This report shows it’s never been more important for employers to invest in employee mental health. Those who prioritise staff wellbeing are more likely to report more productive staff who are less likely to need time off sick or leave the workplace altogether.

“People with mental health problems can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace, but despite this, even before the pandemic 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems fell out of work every year. A lack of support and understanding means too often staff are not able to reach their potential and progress.

“We’re keen to see this employment gap close, but even more so that people are supported to find the right kind of work if and when they are ready.”

The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) has launched a Jobs and Training programme to help people into employment during the pandemic.

Put together with the help of jobs board Adzuna and training provider FutureLearn, the RORA Toolkit and The Big Issue Jobs site offer tips and advice to get into work as well as thousands of jobs to help find the right role.

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