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Government wants flexible working for all employees to help tackle mental health issues


The Government is to launch a consultation to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees as part of a strategy to transform the mental health and wellbeing of the nation.

Launching its No health without mental health strategy, government ministers said flexible working would help carers of people with mental health problems manage their caring role alongside work.

The Government believes that access to employment is vital to help tackle a growing mental illness problem in the UK. At least one in four people experience a mental health problem at some point in their life and mental ill health represents up to 23% of the total burden of ill health in the UK – the largest single cause of illness.

Estimates suggest that the cost of treating mental health problems could double over the next 20 years. In 2003 the cost of mental health problems in England was £77 billion, including costs of low productivity and the wider impacts on wellbeing, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.  More recently it estimates the costs may be closer to £105 billion, of which £30 billion is work related.

Sickness absence due to mental health problems costs the UK economy £8.4 billion a year and results in £15.1 billion in reduced poverty, according to the centre.

The new strategy is the first time that mental health has been given the same importance as physical health. The strategy aims to achieve six objectives by 2014, including the consultation on flexible working and ensuring all psychological therapy sites have an employment co-ordinator who will work with Jobcentre Plus offices, employers and occupational health schemes to help people get back into work.

The Government also wants more people to have good mental health by 2014, that more people with mental health problems will recover and will have good physical health and fewer people will experience stigma and discrimination. 

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said mental health needed to be addressed with the same urgency as physical health.

"We need to end the stigma attached to mental illness, to set an example by talking about the issue openly and candidly and ensure everyone can access the support and information they need," he said

"The strategy shows how we will put people at the heart of everything we do, from a new focus on early intervention to increased funding for psychological therapy, so that everyone has a fair opportunity to get their lives back on track."

The Government believes that extending psychological therapies to all those with mental health problems will result in one million people recovering from their condition by 2014 and 75,000 people getting their lives back on track by returning to work, education, training or volunteering. It will also create over £700 million of savings to the public sector in healthcare, tax and welfare gains.

With the threat of redundancy hanging over many employees, fewer jobs for young people coming out of education and the financial pressures resulting from the current economic circumstances, experts believe the incidence of mental health problems will increase, especially in young people.

"Employment can be an important part of many people’s recovery from mental health problems. People with mental health problems can and do work – and supporting them to do so can save employers significant costs relating to staff turnover, under-performance and untapped potential," the strategy document says.

"There is a considerable amount of guidance available on what employers can do to help people with mental health problems to stay in, return to and perform well at work. Often these are simple, low-cost and commonsense interventions. A new responsibility Deal with industry, non-governmental and other organisations will look at ways of improving the health and wellbeing of the working-age population to enable people to remain in employment and return to work after a period of illness."

The Government is now evaluating its Fit for Work Service pilot projects, designed to get workers on sickness absence back to work faster and keep them in work. Results are due in late 2011.