The UK must step up and address the challenges posed by mental health in the workplace, according to OECD’s Mental Health and Work report.

The Paris-based organisation estimates that mental health issues cost the UK approximately 4.5% of GDP in terms of direct and indirect costs, such as benefit payments, health care expenditure, and lost productivity at work. Despite the recent welfare reform, in addition, the number of mental health related benefit claims each year (370,000 people, 1% of the working population) is the highest among OECD countries. Solutions, as suggested in the study, are to be found in preventive action, smoother integration of health and employment services, and increased participation of disability claimants in the labour market.

The OECD outlook on UK is generally positive. Firstly, there is widespread awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace and its detrimental impact on employment. The quality of support provided by employment and health services is also rather advanced compared to the OECD average, thanks to government efforts which have been consistent in the last decade. Furthermore, substantial progresses are observed in policy planning and in the recent health support schemes that have been successfully tested in some areas of the country.

Nonetheless, a number of challenges still require urgent intervention. One of the major ones is work-related disease prevention.OECD research shows that identifying mental health issues when the employee is still at work or during the early stages of the sick-leave period can significantly reduce the risk of losing a job, along with decreasing the possibility of sickness transitioning to disability benefits claim.

Tackling productivity losses is another critical challenge. The report indicates that whilst current policies tend to target workers on sickness absence, equal attention should be given to those employees with mental health issues that are still working and unable to guarantee full productivity. In this regard, OECD calls for a greater role to be played by employers, who are recommended using the tools available to reduce the stress levels of their workforce, and rehabilitate those workers who have suffered from mental health diseases.

A further issue which cannot be postponed is the necessity to get the employees who lost their jobs back into work. This matter is particularly pressing since, according to OECD estimates, people with mental-health issues have twice the chance to stay unemployed and fall below the poverty threshold than their counterparts without illnesses. Despite the progresses detected in the last years, the current UK health support service should guarantee mental health sufferers increased choice of therapy and reduce waiting lists.

The above challenges, as argued by OECD, can be tackled by following a number of recommendations. To start with, heightened attention to mental health problems in all benefit schemes is required. Measures such as giving Jobcentre Plus a more prominent role, or finding a better balance between responsibilities and sections contained in the schemes are directed to this aim. Health and employment services, in addition, should be integrated more efficiently and the mental health treatment gap reduced. This can be achieved by empowering general practitioners, increasing access to psychological therapies, and ensuring continuity of service in the long run. Lastly, adequate funding to employment advisers should be secured to sustain the recently planned initiatives and ensure availability of the service in a more consistent manner across the country.

Article by Sergio Russo, HRreview reporter