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covid free office

BY Giulia Castagnaro


The Relationship Between Mental Health and Work

Mental health has become more commonly discussed in the workplace, but is enough being done to help those with severe mental illnesses return to work?

NOVEMBER 09  2021


People suffering from severe mental illnesses find it extremely difficult to leave the house and go back to work. Many may need the government to offer more support services besides the free, yet limited, therapy sessions of the NHS.

Mental illness in the UK

The NHS estimated that around 280,000 people are living with severe mental illnesses in the UK, such as chronic depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These illnesses have a serious impact on the individual’s daily activities and have the potential to lead to suicide. In 2020, the Office for National Statistics recorded 5,224 suicides in England and Wales alone. Mind, a mental health charity, also found that 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year in the UK.

In England, the NHS offers free counselling to those who are struggling with mental health issues. Although the therapy they provide is free, the waiting times can be as long as 18 weeks for non-urgent referrals. The problem lies in what the NHS deems to be a non-urgent matter. Even though an individual experiencing mild symptoms of anxiety and depression might not be as alarming as someone struggling with suicidal ideations, having to wait for more than four months would most definitely worsen their mental health. After facing these lengthy waits, people can become less likely to use the NHS services or recommend them to anyone else in need.

Once people finally see a counsellor after their waiting time is over, the free sessions the NHS provides are limited. For Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) the sessions are between 12 to 20. However, for counselling, which is more like talking therapy, the sessions range from 6 to 12. While not proven, it is likely that 6 sessions will not be enough for a patient dealing with one or more mental illnesses.

There is also the option to pay for therapy, yet people who come from a lower and working-class background might not be able to afford private services, as they can range from £10 to £70 per session at best. Ultimately, they are more likely to go through the NHS for their mental health issues, but if the support they get is limited with a long waiting list, they will not be able to receive the help they need.

In addition, a 2020 Care Quality Commission survey found that many people had poor experiences with the mental health services provided by the NHS, with 28% not knowing who to turn to if they had a crisis and 17% reporting that they did not receive the help they needed.


Impact of work on mental health

While having a paid job can be a form of empowerment for people with severe mental illness, it is not always the case. The Mental Health at Work 2018 Report found that 1 in 3 people in the UK workforce has ‘been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime’. Additionally, the report also stated that 61% of employees have experienced mental health issues caused by their job or caused by factors that also included work. In cases where the employee’s mental illness becomes severe, it is often necessary for them to take a leave of absence.

The Mental Health Foundation also suggests that 12.7% of all days of absence in the UK are related to mental health conditions.

A 2020 community mental health survey done by an NHS programme reported that almost half of the people involved (43%) did not receive any help in ‘finding support for keeping or finding paid or voluntary work’, even though they all would have liked to.


Returning to work

As The Health Foundation states, ‘good mental health is a key influence on employability, finding a job and remaining in that job’. Therefore, mental health has a direct influence on the individual’s work life. Mind released some tips on how to maintain a state of wellbeing at work, which included making sure to have a long enough lunch break, organising group activities and if possible listening to music, as research has found it can help reduce anxiety.

There are also several ways in which companies and employers can help employees with mental illness return to work. Some of the ways include but are not limited to: making sure individuals feel mentally and physically well enough to return, ensuring that there is the option for reasonable adjustments (such as a change in working hours), and keeping open and trustworthy communication around the issue of mental health in order to destigmatise it.

Given that the Mental Health at Work 2018 Report found that over half of employees expressed struggling with their mental health due to their work, the most important way an employer can help is by addressing these issues and finding solutions to them. Providing employees with better mental health support can also help UK businesses save up to £8 billion a year.

Although there is a lot more support to be given to those struggling with their mental health, charities such as Rethink Mental Illness are fighting against stigmatisation and towards the inclusion of people living with severe mental illnesses in all areas, including the workplace.



About the author: Giulia Castagnaro is a contributing Features writer with a Master’s degree in ‘Gender, Society and Representation’ and an interest in social and cultural politics, and healthcare.

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