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Mental Health at Work

Volume 785: debated on Wednesday 1 November 2017

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the review of mental health and employers, Thriving at Work, published on 26 October.

My Lords, I am pleased to say that, as the Prime Minister announced, we have already accepted the review’s recommendations that specifically apply to the Civil Service. In addition, the Government will support and encourage the wider public sector overall in taking forward the recommendations wherever possible. We are still considering the wider recommendations and plan to respond to the review later this year.

My Lords, I, too, welcome what the Prime Minister said about implementing this report. She spoke about the Civil Service and the NHS. What about other sectors of the public service where people work under stress—the police, the fire service and, yes, education? Will the Government make sure that the implementation of this report becomes part of the inspection regime by organisations such as Ofsted, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary or even the Care Quality Commission?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s response to the review. It is very important that we encourage all across the public and private sectors to take up the very important recommendations made in it. The Prime Minister said that vital to this priority is the need to have a comprehensive cross-government plan which transforms how we deal with mental illness, not only in our hospitals and crisis centres but in our classrooms, on our shop floors and in our communities. It involves everyone in society. All of these issues will impact on overall well-being, occupational health and the ability to work.

My Lords, we know that work can be extremely helpful to those with mental health conditions. Can my noble friend tell me what is being done to support people with these conditions to get back to work?

Indeed I can. We are more than doubling the number of employment advisers embedded in the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme to enable more people to receive integrated mental health and employment support so that they can remain in, return to or find work. We have developed an enhanced mental health training programme for jobcentre work coaches—and, following testing, we expect to make it available later this year to all work coaches who would benefit from it.

My Lords, the Minister will note that the report endorses the idea of the well-being premium. This was developed by the West Midlands Commission on Mental Health, which was chaired by my right honourable friend in the other place Norman Lamb. The approach is designed to incentivise employers not only to improve the mental health of their employees but to address their physical health and obesity issues. Does the Minister agree that it is high time that we tried some different ways of improving employee health and will she confirm that funding will be coming forward to fund the trial that the West Midlands commission is proposing?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord and thank him for giving me early notice of his question. The West Midlands commission has undertaken important research into mental health and its impact on the public sector. Government officials are working positively with the West Midlands Combined Authority to explore ideas and undertake work that will support positive action on mental health in the region. The noble Lord is right to say that different things have to be looked at, including different ways of improving people’s health and well-being. Indeed, as the immediate past chairman of the advisory board of the Samaritans, this is something very close to my heart. However, I cannot confirm an answer to his question referring to costs, so I will write to him.

My Lords, I, too, welcome this report. The authors state at the beginning:

“We start from the position that the correct way to view mental health is that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work”.

I have to say that I love that; it is a really positive way to understand mental health. I realise that the Minister will need to take time to reflect on the recommendations in the report, but when she comes to respond, will she acknowledge that her department has a couple of specific responsibilities? The first is that it is an enormous employer with more than 80,000 staff: and, secondly, it runs programmes with the unemployed. Will she ask her department to think about recommending how it might go about modelling with its own employees a healthy environment for mental health? More specifically and perhaps more challengingly, will she reflect again on the programmes for assessing whether people who are suffering with mental health problems should be in work? I ask this because there have been a number of concerns that the nature of the assessments is actually making people’s mental health worse rather than better.

I thank the noble Baroness for her helpful questions. I am proud to say that the Department for Work and Pensions is leading the way in terms of the enormous amount of support already available to its staff. However, she is entirely right to say that there is much more that we can do. We need to work across government, and that is why we are thinking carefully before responding to this review. Her question about assessments for people with mental health issues is very appropriate. We are making sure that people with long-term disability issues do not have to go through the assessment programme more than once when it comes to work capability. Of course there is more that we can do, but I think that we have made an amazing start.

My Lords, there are many valuable statistics in the report, but also some quite worrying ones. Apparently 35% of the people interviewed thought that if they had had depression they would be far less likely to get any sort of promotion, while half of those interviewed said that they would not be willing to discuss mental health issues with their line manager. First, in the light of that, is there not a pressing need for a new public mental health awareness campaign? Secondly, will the Minister look into the contribution that workplace chaplaincy can make to addressing this problem?

My Lords, I hope that we can continue to use this report and the response to the review as part of building awareness of that. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. We understand more than in the past that mental health conditions are a barrier to work but, if we can help more people into employment, work can be part of the solution for many. I very much take on board his suggestion that workplace chaplaincy is an example of where people can seek guidance and help. Sometimes it is important to think about whether it can be done very quietly and anonymously. There is a lot to think through. The review is an enormous step forward. We want to become one of the leading nations in the world in supporting mental health.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in particular sectors it is sometimes the actions and behaviour of government itself that brings about stresses that some people in certain areas find very hard to cope with? I am thinking in particular about education, which was mentioned by my noble friend in his Question. A constant barrage of change and new requirements is very difficult for people who are already working under very high pressure to accommodate. Will she say whether her department or any of her colleagues’ departments take this into account when they assess how they bring new requirements to bear on the people who depend on them?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and say straightaway that in the Department for Work and Pensions we have introduced a new system of line managers so that people always have someone they can go to immediately for help. The truth is that people in both the public and private sectors are under enormous pressures off and on in their lives, as we have said. The reality is that people face pressure, whether from government or through family crises. A lot of it begins at home and we know that conflict in the home can lead into the workplace and affect people’s ability to cope. We need to focus on the coping strategies, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. This review is about supporting people into work.