Tag Archives: Work

The new work and pensions secretary is an insult to disabled people

As backlashes go, the days following Esther McVey’s appointment as the new work and pensions secretary have seen intense criticism. Between 2012 and 2013, as minister for disabled people and later employment minister, McVey was famed for defending the indefensible, saying it was “right” that people were having to use food banks and claiming that benefit sanctions “teach” jobseekers to take looking for work seriously – going as far as comparing unemployed people to naughty schoolchildren being punished by a teacher – despite the destitution and death that sanctions have since caused. 

Yet this is about more than soundbites. From giving misleading information about the bedroom tax’s impact on disabled people to her decision to close the Independent Living Fund, McVey appeared to relish removing disability support, with campaigners accusing her of distorting the facts to help make that a reality. Worse, she was central in helping the rightwing press stoke up suspicion towards disabled people on benefits – most blatantly as David Cameron’s government began to abolish disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with personal independence payments (PIP). As the Daily Mail put it at the time, McVey was on a mission to “pursue vast numbers of bogus disabled who carry on claiming the DLA long after they have ‘healed’.” That PIP is now wrongly withdrawing benefits from severely ill and disabled people – with 65% of decisions overturned on appeal – makes this all the more sickening.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ problems do not begin or end with McVey – she is the fifth person to hold the title since 2016 – but for Theresa May to (even reluctantly) promote someone with her track record is emblematic of the Conservatives’ disregard for disabled people.

I’ve spoken to many disabled people who are frightened by McVey’s appointment. That might be hard to understand if you are healthy or on a comfortable wage, but when you rely on social security to eat and pay rent, the DWP minister has power over you. For the families at the sharp end of austerity, McVey represents skipping dinner to pay the bedroom tax or becoming suicidal after losing benefits.

This year, the DWP will continue to oversee major social security changes, including more traumatic transfers from DLA to PIP and the ongoing rollout of the flawed universal credit, which is causing misery and hardship to thousands of families. In her previous ministerial roles, McVey showed herself to be a politician who never cared about the impact of such policies. But DWP decisions affect millions of people’s lives. Largely, for those who are already struggling with poverty and illness. That McVey is now in charge is an insult to them all.

The new work and pensions secretary is an insult to disabled people

As backlashes go, the days following Esther McVey’s appointment as the new work and pensions secretary have seen intense criticism. Between 2012 and 2013, as minister for disabled people and later employment minister, McVey was famed for defending the indefensible, saying it was “right” that people were having to use food banks and claiming that benefit sanctions “teach” jobseekers to take looking for work seriously – going as far as comparing unemployed people to naughty schoolchildren being punished by a teacher – despite the destitution and death that sanctions have since caused. 

Yet this is about more than soundbites. From giving misleading information about the bedroom tax’s impact on disabled people to her decision to close the Independent Living Fund, McVey appeared to relish removing disability support, with campaigners accusing her of distorting the facts to help make that a reality. Worse, she was central in helping the rightwing press stoke up suspicion towards disabled people on benefits – most blatantly as David Cameron’s government began to abolish disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with personal independence payments (PIP). As the Daily Mail put it at the time, McVey was on a mission to “pursue vast numbers of bogus disabled who carry on claiming the DLA long after they have ‘healed’.” That PIP is now wrongly withdrawing benefits from severely ill and disabled people – with 65% of decisions overturned on appeal – makes this all the more sickening.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ problems do not begin or end with McVey – she is the fifth person to hold the title since 2016 – but for Theresa May to (even reluctantly) promote someone with her track record is emblematic of the Conservatives’ disregard for disabled people.

I’ve spoken to many disabled people who are frightened by McVey’s appointment. That might be hard to understand if you are healthy or on a comfortable wage, but when you rely on social security to eat and pay rent, the DWP minister has power over you. For the families at the sharp end of austerity, McVey represents skipping dinner to pay the bedroom tax or becoming suicidal after losing benefits.

This year, the DWP will continue to oversee major social security changes, including more traumatic transfers from DLA to PIP and the ongoing rollout of the flawed universal credit, which is causing misery and hardship to thousands of families. In her previous ministerial roles, McVey showed herself to be a politician who never cared about the impact of such policies. But DWP decisions affect millions of people’s lives. Largely, for those who are already struggling with poverty and illness. That McVey is now in charge is an insult to them all.

The new work and pensions secretary is an insult to disabled people

As backlashes go, the days following Esther McVey’s appointment as the new work and pensions secretary have seen intense criticism. Between 2012 and 2013, as minister for disabled people and later employment minister, McVey was famed for defending the indefensible, saying it was “right” that people were having to use food banks and claiming that benefit sanctions “teach” jobseekers to take looking for work seriously – going as far as comparing unemployed people to naughty schoolchildren being punished by a teacher – despite the destitution and death that sanctions have since caused. 

Yet this is about more than soundbites. From giving misleading information about the bedroom tax’s impact on disabled people to her decision to close the Independent Living Fund, McVey appeared to relish removing disability support, with campaigners accusing her of distorting the facts to help make that a reality. Worse, she was central in helping the rightwing press stoke up suspicion towards disabled people on benefits – most blatantly as David Cameron’s government began to abolish disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with personal independence payments (PIP). As the Daily Mail put it at the time, McVey was on a mission to “pursue vast numbers of bogus disabled who carry on claiming the DLA long after they have ‘healed’.” That PIP is now wrongly withdrawing benefits from severely ill and disabled people – with 65% of decisions overturned on appeal – makes this all the more sickening.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ problems do not begin or end with McVey – she is the fifth person to hold the title since 2016 – but for Theresa May to (even reluctantly) promote someone with her track record is emblematic of the Conservatives’ disregard for disabled people.

I’ve spoken to many disabled people who are frightened by McVey’s appointment. That might be hard to understand if you are healthy or on a comfortable wage, but when you rely on social security to eat and pay rent, the DWP minister has power over you. For the families at the sharp end of austerity, McVey represents skipping dinner to pay the bedroom tax or becoming suicidal after losing benefits.

This year, the DWP will continue to oversee major social security changes, including more traumatic transfers from DLA to PIP and the ongoing rollout of the flawed universal credit, which is causing misery and hardship to thousands of families. In her previous ministerial roles, McVey showed herself to be a politician who never cared about the impact of such policies. But DWP decisions affect millions of people’s lives. Largely, for those who are already struggling with poverty and illness. That McVey is now in charge is an insult to them all.

The new work and pensions secretary is an insult to disabled people

As backlashes go, the days following Esther McVey’s appointment as the new work and pensions secretary have seen intense criticism. Between 2012 and 2013, as minister for disabled people and later employment minister, McVey was famed for defending the indefensible, saying it was “right” that people were having to use food banks and claiming that benefit sanctions “teach” jobseekers to take looking for work seriously – going as far as comparing unemployed people to naughty schoolchildren being punished by a teacher – despite the destitution and death that sanctions have since caused. 

Yet this is about more than soundbites. From giving misleading information about the bedroom tax’s impact on disabled people to her decision to close the Independent Living Fund, McVey appeared to relish removing disability support, with campaigners accusing her of distorting the facts to help make that a reality. Worse, she was central in helping the rightwing press stoke up suspicion towards disabled people on benefits – most blatantly as David Cameron’s government began to abolish disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with personal independence payments (PIP). As the Daily Mail put it at the time, McVey was on a mission to “pursue vast numbers of bogus disabled who carry on claiming the DLA long after they have ‘healed’.” That PIP is now wrongly withdrawing benefits from severely ill and disabled people – with 65% of decisions overturned on appeal – makes this all the more sickening.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ problems do not begin or end with McVey – she is the fifth person to hold the title since 2016 – but for Theresa May to (even reluctantly) promote someone with her track record is emblematic of the Conservatives’ disregard for disabled people.

Many disabled people are genuinely frightened by McVey’s appointment. hen you rely on social security to be able to eat and pay rent, the DWP minister has power over you. For the families at the sharp end of austerity, McVey represents skipping dinner to pay the bedroom tax or becoming suicidal after losing benefits.

This year, the DWP will continue to oversee major social security changes, including more traumatic transfers from DLA to PIP and the ongoing rollout of the flawed universal credit, which is causing misery and hardship to thousands of families. In her previous ministerial roles, McVey showed herself to be a politician who never cared about the impact of such policies. But DWP decisions affect millions of people’s lives. Largely, for those who are already struggling with poverty and illness. That McVey is now in charge is an insult to them all.

Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you

Long hours, stress and physical inactivity are bad for our wellbeing – yet we’re working harder than ever. Isn’t it time we fought back?

Health at work illo 1


Illustration: Leon Edler

When a new group of interns recently arrived at Barclays in New York, they discovered a memo in their inboxes. It was from their supervisor at the bank, and headed: “Welcome to the jungle.” The message continued: “I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … The internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … An intern asked our staffer for a weekend off for a family reunion – he was told he could go. He was also asked to hand in his BlackBerry and pack up his desk.”

Although the (unauthorised) memo was meant as a joke, no one laughed when it was leaked to the media. Memories were still fresh of Moritz Erhardt, the 21-year-old London intern who died after working 72 hours in a row at Bank of America. It looked as if Barclays was also taking the “work ethic” to morbid extremes.

Following 30 years of neoliberal deregulation, the nine-to-five feels like a relic of a bygone era. Jobs are endlessly stressed and increasingly precarious. Overwork has become the norm in many companies – something expected and even admired. Everything we do outside the office – no matter how rewarding – is quietly denigrated. Relaxation, hobbies, raising children or reading a book are dismissed as laziness. That’s how powerful the mythology of work is.

Technology was supposed to liberate us from much of the daily slog, but has often made things worse: in 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked their work email outside of office hours. Today, with the help of tablets and smartphones, it is 50%, often before we get out of bed.

Health at work illo 2


Illustration: Leon Edler

Some observers have suggested that workers today are never “turned off”. Like our mobile phones, we only go on standby at the end of the day, as we crawl into bed exhausted. This unrelenting joylessness is especially evident where holidays are concerned. In the US, one of the richest economies in the world, employees are lucky to get two weeks off a year.

You might almost think this frenetic activity was directly linked to our biological preservation and that we would all starve without it. As if writing stupid emails all day in a cramped office was akin to hunting-and-gathering of a previous age … Thankfully, a sea change is taking place. The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center recently used activity trackers to monitor 8,000 workers over the age of 45. The findings were striking. The average period of inactivity during each waking day was 12.3 hours. Employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. The authors concluded that sitting in an office for long periods has a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning.

When researchers at University College London looked at 85,000 workers, mainly middle-aged men and women, they found a correlation between overwork and cardiovascular problems, especially an irregular heart beat or atrial fibrillation, which increases the chances of a stroke five-fold.

Labour unions are increasingly raising concerns about excessive work, too, especially its impact on relationships and physical and mental health. Take the case of the IG Metall union in Germany. Last week, 15,000 workers (who manufacture car parts for firms such as Porsche) called a strike, demanding a 28-hour work week with unchanged pay and conditions. It’s not about indolence, they say, but self-protection: they don’t want to die before their time. Science is on their side: research from the Australian National University recently found that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing.

Is there a healthy and acceptable level of work? According to US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most modern employees are productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry. Pang argues that the workday could easily be scaled back without undermining standards of living or prosperity.

Health at work illo 3


Illustration: Leon Edler

Other studies back up this observation. The Swedish government, for example, funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.

All this is encouraging as far as it goes. But almost all of these studies focus on the problem from a numerical point of view – the amount of time spent working each day, year-in and year-out. We need to go further and begin to look at the conditions of paid employment. If a job is wretched and overly stressful, even a few hours of it can be an existential nightmare. Someone who relishes working on their car at the weekend, for example, might find the same thing intolerable in a large factory, even for a short period. All the freedom, creativity and craft are sucked out of the activity. It becomes an externally imposed chore rather than a moment of release.

Why is this important?

Because there is a danger that merely reducing working hours will not change much, when it comes to health, if jobs are intrinsically disenfranchising. In order to make jobs more conducive to our mental and physiological welfare, much less work is definitely essential. So too are jobs of a better kind, where hierarchies are less authoritarian and tasks are more varied and meaningful.

Capitalism doesn’t have a great track record for creating jobs such as these, unfortunately. More than a third of British workers think their jobs are meaningless, according to a survey by YouGov. And if morale is that low, it doesn’t matter how many gym vouchers, mindfulness programmes and baskets of organic fruit employers throw at them. Even the most committed employee will feel that something is fundamentally missing. A life.

Peter Fleming’s new book, The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation, is published by Pluto Press (£14.99rrp). To order a copy for £12.74 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com

Inequality and children at work: your best comments on the Guardian today

A youthful theme to some of the topics that have provoked the most interesting conversation today, with stories on education, health and nutrition and children in the workplace all below.

To join in you can click on the links in the comments below to expand and add your thoughts. We’ll continue to highlight more comments worth reading as the day goes on.

Children at nursery


Children as young as two, three and four are being divided into groups based on ability and behaviour in classrooms in England. Photograph: Alamy

Half of nursery teachers surveyed for this piece said they separated under-fives for reading, raising fears over impact on children’s confidence. You’ve been sharing your reaction in the comments.

‘Setting by ability has nothing but a detrimental effect on the least able children’

Research conducted in British schools since the 1980s has overwhelmingly concluded that setting by ability has nothing but a detrimental effect on the least able children and has no impact on middle ability children. Given that we now know that academic intelligence can grow given a favourable context, if we continue to ability group them we are condemning two thirds of our children to a learning experience which inhibits their progress.
Seekingsomesense

‘Children don’t learn or develop when they’re stressed’

Finland has the best education system in the world and they have no ability grouping, or indeed exams, until the age of 18. Children don’t learn or develop when they’re stressed. Stop this insanity.
Autonova1

takeaway shop


More than 400 schools across England have 20 or more fast food takeaways within a 400-metre radius. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

You’ve also been sharing your thoughts beneath an article that says increasing numbers of fast food take­aways are springing up close to schools in England, with pupils in the most socially deprived areas exposed to five times as many outlets as their richest peers.

‘Even as an adult I struggle to buy something healthy on the high street’

Won’t schools in a densely packed urban environment have more of everything located closer to the school? I would bet they have more convenience stores, coffee shops and charity shops within 400m as well.

Deprived or not, give a kid money for lunch and they will likely but junk food. If these places are removed, is the assumption that kids will suddenly purchase healthy food? Where from? Even as an adult I struggle to buy something healthy for lunch on the high street.
RDUK123

‘It seems that priorities are very skewed in some families’

I worked as a teacher in what would be considered a deprived area. A great number of the children who came to school got their main meal in the school. Their parents didn’t cook for them or provide them with a healthy diet. The children would get school dinner and then supplement their diet with whatever fast food they found on the way home.

The issue is not that these families are too poor to buy healthy food and thus have to turn to junkfood (although recent studies have found that, in the long run, it’s cheaper to eat healthily) it’s that due to either poor education or laziness, on the parents part, these children are suffering. It seems that priorities are very skewed in some families.
limu

baby and woman in office


Should babies be allowed in the office? Photograph: Alamy

This piece argues that with the right provisions the workplace should positively welcome mothers who would like to bring their infants with them. Here’s some of your reaction:

‘Why does anyone think the kid wants to be in an office?’

Why are parents more special than anyone else? Why does anyone think the kid, who has no choice in the matter, wants to be in an office with desks, scratchy carpets and a throughput of strangers walking past. Why should other workers who all have their own issues, elderly parents, sick relatives etc not bring dad with dementia into the office as well? Why are you so special that your kids should be forced into spaces with other people who don’t want to be responsible for them? No thanks.
Person77

‘Babies do not just sleep and breastfeed’

I, like many others, have sensory issues. Babies do not just sleep and breastfeed. They cry, loudly. They shriek. Toddlers are as bad, constantly yelling for attention, which they never seem to get, even when mum isn’t working. These are all creatures that have not learned to moderate their volume in public, and see me avoiding many “public” spaces as a result. I’ve had enough of needing to leave an otherwise decent coffee shop because some caregiver can’t be arsed to manage their brat. This can only be more difficult if said caregiver is working.
Lailoken

Comments have been edited for length. This article will be updated throughout the day with some of the most interesting ways readers have been participating across the site.

The Guardian view on 50 years of legal abortion: let’s finish the work | Editorial

It is 50 years on Friday since David Steel’s abortion act became law. It did not come into force until the following April. In those six months, it is likely that around 70 women died from sepsis or some other cause resulting from illegal abortion: in the previous decade, it claimed at least 150 lives a year, the biggest single cause of maternal mortality. Activists in a campaign that began in the 1930s toasted victory with champagne. But one veteran, who had had an illegal abortion herself, dampened the celebrations. They should be drinking half-glasses, she said, for the job was only half done.

Nonetheless, in the past 50 years millions of women have benefited from access to safe abortion. It has transformed the future for many girls and women – young women in particular, for the peak age for abortion is 19; it is also disproportionately in demand in poorer parts of England and Wales. There are now around 200,000 abortions recorded each year, but almost all of them – 92% – take place in the first trimester of pregnancy. No one likes carrying out an abortion, says the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, but the alternative – illegal, unsafe abortion – is worse.

Yet reforming the law does remain a job half done. The Abortion Act 1967 did not decriminalise termination; it merely introduced a very narrow set of exemptions from the criminal law, a tiny window where abortion was legal, restricted by the requirement that two doctors agree that carrying a pregnancy to term would be a greater risk than termination, or that the unborn child had such physical or mental abnormalities that it would be seriously handicapped.

Over time, these rules have been interpreted much less restrictively. But even if practice has changed, they are still in force, and abortion remains a criminal offence both for the woman and for medical practitioners. Every doctor is aware that they remain open to prosecution. Nor is it only in Northern Ireland that women who buy abortion pills online are open to prosecution. An adult woman still does not have the autonomy to make one of the most fundamental decisions about her body and her life. And for all those involved – women and health practitioners – the climate around abortion remains punitive.

Yet despite the strength of argument for reform, this is perilous territory. In the past half century, for every tentative attempt to complete the process of liberalising the law, there have been a score or more efforts to restrict it further. Only one has succeeded, a cut in the maximum term from 28 to 24 weeks – but in an age of culture wars, this is a field aggressively patrolled by anti-abortion activists, many of whom are part of a revivalist right that sanctifies motherhood and sees every liberal advance as a cautionary tale about modernity.

And yet, in March this year, Diana Johnson, the Kingston upon Hull MP, successfully won a vote on a backbench bill to decriminalise abortion. Although the general election intervened, MPs believe there is still a pro-change majority in the Commons and in the Lords. Nor is it only campaigners in parliament who think that the time has come for further reform. One reason for the new optimism is that for the first time, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all now support decriminalisation. The professionals who are most closely involved in reproductive health, trained and qualified people devoted to securing and protecting healthy lives for women and babies, believe that it is necessary to change the law to reflect the way the world has changed since 1967.

Changes in practice mean most abortions are now medical rather than surgical; a steady rise in early terminations has accompanied the widespread introduction of drugs that trigger abortion. Experience in Canada and parts of Australia where decriminalisation has been introduced shows it has not led to a surge in abortion. Above all, decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. The Johnson bill would have made no change at all to the existing restrictions on, for example, the 24-week limit or the ban on sex-selection abortion. It continued to recognise that there are deeply held conscientious objections. It could have introduced new criminal sanctions on those who coerce or deceive women into abortion. Abortion has always been polarising. But this is a job half done, and it’s time to complete it.

Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t work – I’m proof | Hannah Jane Parkinson

It’s official. The government-commissioned Thriving at Work report has found that many of us are not, in fact, thriving at work. About 300,000 of us with long-term mental health problems lose their job each year in the UK. For me, this is news alongside sky is blue; Liverpool FC are perpetually underachieving; David Davis understands the Brexit process as much as he does superstring theory.

We have been saying this for a long time. We the people who know. The people with mental illness; the mental health professionals; the experts and charity heads; and in some cases, the employers. It’s a positive step that Theresa May commissioned this report. It’s a travesty that it was such a long time coming.

The tactics shifted a while ago. Some of us stopped appealing to this government’s sense of altruism and began arguing that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Once again, it has been confirmed that the annual cost to the country of poor mental health is £99bn. This isn’t a revelation. I’ve been writing about it for four years, so have many others. The UK’s productivity is in the doldrums. The financial cost to employers is about £42bn.

Let me tell you about working with a severe, long-term mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder). Bipolar disorder is a cyclical illness. Those cycles will vary, according to the illness’s subsets, from rapid cycling disorder to episodes that happen with years in between. For me, my condition is “managed” by medication and mental health services.

So it goes a bit like this: for a big chunk of each year I’ll probably spend time off. In the past couple of years that has meant stints in hospital, sometimes writing on zero sleep, or even having to tell an editor that I couldn’t file because of the small inconvenience of being sectioned. Then, the long walks to recuperate, the nurturing back to health. Then the return to work.


There’s a crisis safety net when individuals reach the nadir, and that’s it

But I’m one of the lucky ones. When I joined the Guardian, a care plan was set up. It was distributed to my line managers so they knew the score and could notice any signs of impending episodes. I have had the support of three assigned HR personnel and also my colleagues, both senior and peers, formally and informally. They took the time to learn about my illness and how they could best understand and support it. All of this is the kind of thing employers should be doing as standard, and is numbered among the 40 recommendations made in the Thriving at Work report.

Last week, on a panel, someone asked me: “Is it worth it for employers?” It’s a fair question – undoubtedly sometimes I’m a pain in the arse. But how many of us have colleagues with no mental health problems but who are also a pain in the arse: underperforming, lazy, bullying, inefficient. I don’t think I’m any of those things. In my experience people with mental health problems are incredibly hard workers – they grab hold of those periods of wellness, desperate to make the most of them. Despite an illness that is chronic, I have achieved much in my professional life. Other people won’t have such chronic illnesses but experience a period of mental ill health and make a full recovery.

But here is where I am not lucky: my recent experiences of NHS mental health care characterise, as the report put it, “a lack of speedy access to mental health services”. The trust I am under has had some incredible professionals who have cared for me, but in many ways I have been catastrophically let down. I will always remember having a conversation with occupational health at work, who were fully supportive but wanted to know what measures I had in place before I returned to work.

They were flabbergasted when I said I had no formal measures in place, and that it wasn’t for want of trying. It was because our NHS has been reduced to skin and bone. Therapy waiting lists, as in my case, can last two years. Named psychiatrists are becoming rarer, being passed around services more common. Consistent support is almost nonexistent. There’s a crisis safety net when individuals reach the nadir, and that’s it. It doesn’t take a genius to realise this is not conducive to individuals working well and staying healthy – something the report noted.

Other welcome recommendations included a shoring up of the Equality Act 2010, and I’d add to that employers becoming more creative and flexible in their recruitment. If someone has been unwell, they may well have gaps in their CV. This might not have any impact on how competent they are, or how good a potential employee. Look at the number of successful people who have been open about their mental illness, from politicians to actors to company chief executives.

Finally, we need to broaden the mental health “debate” to include illnesses other than the more commonly experienced mental health difficulties. We need to properly arm employers with the information about conditions other than the thankfully now more understood depression and generalised anxiety disorder. If I hadn’t sat down with HR and made that care plan, I doubt they would have been remotely prepared or in a position to support me. The report has recommended core standards to change this, so employers “know what to do”. Good.

Unfortunately, some people will be too unwell to work – that’s the case for both mental and physical illness. The government must provide the benefits and care packages that are required. It’s what any moral society should do. Nobody chooses to be ill, and nobody should be punished for it. But for those with mental health problems who are able to work, we must do more to recruit and retain them. That way everyone benefits.

Hannah Jane Parkinson writes for the Guardian on pop culture, music, tech, football, politics and mental health

Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t work – I’m proof | Hannah Jane Parkinson

It’s official. The government-commissioned Thriving at Work report has found that many of us are not, in fact, thriving at work. About 300,000 of us with long-term mental health problems lose their job each year in the UK. For me, this is news alongside sky is blue; Liverpool FC are perpetually underachieving; David Davis understands the Brexit process as much as he does superstring theory.

We have been saying this for a long time. We the people who know. The people with mental illness; the mental health professionals; the experts and charity heads; and in some cases, the employers. It’s a positive step that Theresa May commissioned this report. It’s a travesty that it was such a long time coming.

The tactics shifted a while ago. Some of us stopped appealing to this government’s sense of altruism and began arguing that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Once again, it has been confirmed that the annual cost to the country of poor mental health is £99bn. This isn’t a revelation. I’ve been writing about it for four years, so have many others. The UK’s productivity is in the doldrums. The financial cost to employers is about £42bn.

Let me tell you about working with a severe, long-term mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder). Bipolar disorder is a cyclical illness. Those cycles will vary, according to the illness’s subsets, from rapid cycling disorder to episodes that happen with years in between. For me, my condition is “managed” by medication and mental health services.

So it goes a bit like this: for a big chunk of each year I’ll probably spend time off. In the past couple of years that has meant stints in hospital, sometimes writing on zero sleep, or even having to tell an editor that I couldn’t file because of the small inconvenience of being sectioned. Then, the long walks to recuperate, the nurturing back to health. Then the return to work.


There’s a crisis safety net when individuals reach the nadir, and that’s it

But I’m one of the lucky ones. When I joined the Guardian, a care plan was set up. It was distributed to my line managers so they knew the score and could notice any signs of impending episodes. I have had the support of three assigned HR personnel and also my colleagues, both senior and peers, formally and informally. They took the time to learn about my illness and how they could best understand and support it. All of this is the kind of thing employers should be doing as standard, and is numbered among the 40 recommendations made in the Thriving at Work report.

Last week, on a panel, someone asked me: “Is it worth it for employers?” It’s a fair question – undoubtedly sometimes I’m a pain in the arse. But how many of us have colleagues with no mental health problems but who are also a pain in the arse: underperforming, lazy, bullying, inefficient. I don’t think I’m any of those things. In my experience people with mental health problems are incredibly hard workers – they grab hold of those periods of wellness, desperate to make the most of them. Despite an illness that is chronic, I have achieved much in my professional life. Other people won’t have such chronic illnesses but experience a period of mental ill health and make a full recovery.

But here is where I am not lucky: my recent experiences of NHS mental health care characterise, as the report put it, “a lack of speedy access to mental health services”. The trust I am under has had some incredible professionals who have cared for me, but in many ways I have been catastrophically let down. I will always remember having a conversation with occupational health at work, who were fully supportive but wanted to know what measures I had in place before I returned to work.

They were flabbergasted when I said I had no formal measures in place, and that it wasn’t for want of trying. It was because our NHS has been reduced to skin and bone. Therapy waiting lists, as in my case, can last two years. Named psychiatrists are becoming rarer, being passed around services more common. Consistent support is almost nonexistent. There’s a crisis safety net when individuals reach the nadir, and that’s it. It doesn’t take a genius to realise this is not conducive to individuals working well and staying healthy – something the report noted.

Other welcome recommendations included a shoring up of the Equality Act 2010, and I’d add to that employers becoming more creative and flexible in their recruitment. If someone has been unwell, they may well have gaps in their CV. This might not have any impact on how competent they are, or how good a potential employee. Look at the number of successful people who have been open about their mental illness, from politicians to actors to company chief executives.

Finally, we need to broaden the mental health “debate” to include illnesses other than the more commonly experienced mental health difficulties. We need to properly arm employers with the information about conditions other than the thankfully now more understood depression and generalised anxiety disorder. If I hadn’t sat down with HR and made that care plan, I doubt they would have been remotely prepared or in a position to support me. The report has recommended core standards to change this, so employers “know what to do”. Good.

Unfortunately, some people will be too unwell to work – that’s the case for both mental and physical illness. The government must provide the benefits and care packages that are required. It’s what any moral society should do. Nobody chooses to be ill, and nobody should be punished for it. But for those with mental health problems who are able to work, we must do more to recruit and retain them. That way everyone benefits.

Hannah Jane Parkinson writes for the Guardian on pop culture, music, tech, football, politics and mental health

Mental health problems are forcing thousands in UK out of work – report

About 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year, a review commissioned by Theresa May has found.

The Thriving at Work report, published on Thursday, puts the annual cost to the UK economy of poor mental health at up to £99bn, of which about £42bn is borne by employers.

The authors – the Mind chief executive, Paul Farmer, and the mental health campaigner and a former HBOS chair, Dennis Stevenson – said they were shocked to find the number of people forced to stop work as a result of mental health problems was 50% higher than for those with physical health conditions.

Farmer said the evidence suggested it is still a taboo subject in many workplaces. “The picture is that there are very significant numbers of people in work with mental health problems but there are significant numbers who are not,” he said.

“We think that the reasons for that are a combination of a lack of support, lack of understanding within some workplaces and a lack of speedy access to mental health services. Sometimes in organisations people feel themselves excluded as a result of their mental health issues and sometimes people don’t necessarily spot that somebody is struggling.”

Farmer and Stevenson said that the challenge was bigger than they had envisaged when instructed by the prime minister, but that with action dramatic changes could be achieved over the next 10 years. They said they hoped that the number of people with long-term mental health problems who lose their jobs could be reduced to the same level as those with physical conditions.

They found that about 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition, which they said illustrates the fact that given the right support they can thrive in employment.

Farmer described the economic case as overwhelming and the authors link current failures to the UK’s relatively poor productivity. An analysis by Deloitte examining existing workplace interventions identified potential to generate a return to business of between £1.50 and £9 for every £1 invested.

Among examples of good practice highlighted by the report are the mental health first aid courses at Thames Water and, at Aviva, the promotion of e-learning modules to help identify and self-identify when people need support.

Farmer and Stevenson said they want all employers to commit to six core standards around mental health, including having a plan in place, increasing awareness among employees, stipulating line management responsibilities and routinely monitoring staff’s mental health and wellbeing. “What we feel is really important is that organisations take responsibility for the mental health of their staff,” said Farmer.

“As the stigma around mental health begins to shift, I think the area of mental health in the workplace is becoming much more visible. Employers are recognising that this is an issue, but they don’t know what to do. That’s why we’ve recommended these core standards.”

Highlighting further benefits for companies, he said that some young people were now asking employers about their mental health policies in the same way they might have asked about their green credentials a decade ago.

“The most progressive organisations in this area are already being quite open in terms of their internal reporting and what they put on their website in terms of how they support their staff,” he said.

Large employers are expected to go further and the report calls on the government and public sector to lead by example. It says the government should also ensure that the NHS provides high quality mental health services, quick and convenient to fit around employment, and consider enhancing protections for employees with mental health conditions in the Equality Act 2010.

The report makes 40 recommendations and Stevenson urged the government to accept them all. “We need the right leadership among employers in the public, private and voluntary sectors, and a mandate from policy-makers to deliver our ambitious but achievable plan,” he said.

Stephen Martin, director general of the Institute of Directors, welcomed the review which he said shows “mental health is not just a moral issue, but a business one too. Business leaders must put themselves at the frontier of addressing these challenges.”

Case study: ‘I was using work in a quite self-destructive way’

Andrew Omerod


Andrew Omerod: ‘I’d been living with depression a very long time already; work happened to be the way it was expressed.’

Andrew Omerod, 35, from London, operations director at GrantTree, says he has experienced both sides of the coin when it comes to mental health problems at work. “When I was working for my previous employer, I was using work in quite a self-destructive way. Overworking is a way of acting out the pain you’re experiencing that you don’t know how to express. It’s also a way of escaping it in the short term – but it’s harmful in the long term.

“It was work that led to me having a breakdown. I’d been living with depression a very long time already; work happened to be the way it was expressed. I had to take time off, about a year.

“The thing that was disappointing for me more than anything else was that when I was ready to go to work my employer became quite disruptive. They basically said: ‘You can come back to us but rather than reporting directly to the MD [managing director] you’re going to have to report to someone else who we’ve promoted in your absence.’ So we agreed that I would leave.

“The experience at GrantTree has been very different. I am very passionate about my job, I get caught up in it and here I have colleagues who say to me: ‘You seem to be staying late and taking on quite a lot of stuff, is that sustainable?’ [They are] people who recognise I can fall into this kind of behaviour.”