A recent report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) reported that individuals with common mental health conditions have a typical yearly income of £8,400 less than the rest of the population. This figure is stark, but unfortunately not surprising.
Some of the income gap was explained by factors related to possible lack of career opportunities in the workplace, where confidence and fears around seeking new career development challenges can be real barriers, or where people feel being overlooked for promotion opportunities. It was also found that part-time work options seem to fit better with the flexibility required for mental health conditions. But these options may not be readily available in better paid jobs so individuals fall into lower paid roles, even below their skillset, in order to access flexible work.
While mental health at work has received much attention in recent years, with very positive examples to try and address issues around stigma for example, the MMHPI report suggests we are still a long way from having inclusive workplaces that enable employees to thrive and succeed, in spite of having a mental health condition.
Within the health and protection insurance industry, significant progress has been made in the provision of added value services to support customers. Access to virtual health services to fast-track treatment, and other rehabilitation interventions, are now core features of existing propositions, with Covid-19 accelerating the implementation of new initiatives in the last year. But supporting mental health at work is about more than interventions that target the individual only. For example, providing counselling support can be very helpful, but the evidence presented in the Stevenson/Farmer review suggests that workplaces also need to be engaged, and ultimately have policies and procedures that have truly supportive frameworks.
From an income protection perspective, the introduction of early vocational rehabilitation initiatives has seen positive results in helping individuals with mental health and other conditions, to return and remain in work, which is beneficial for the individual, the employer, insurer, and wider society. The success of these interventions has undoubtedly required engagement from the employer, to be able to accommodate reasonable adjustments and flexible work patterns.
While such an approach is helpful, this does not address the early absence warnings that employees with mental health difficulties show before going off work, such as presenteeism. With an estimated 300,000 individuals with mental health conditions falling out of work every year, the risk of unemployment and pay gap remains a real challenge.
We should also be concerned about the new generation of young workers entering the labour market for the first time. Many of them might have already experienced mental ill health as a result of the added strain Covid-19 has caused, particularly in relation to uncertainty on work prospects and challenging competition to secure employment during a recession. There is a risk of facing a much greater mental health challenge in the future, if meaningful change is not achieved to support and help individuals with mental health conditions succeed in their work aspirations.
On a positive note, the unexpected and prolonged change in working practices due to Covid-19, has provided opportunities for employers to offer flexible work arrangements, something which would not have been an option for many, prior to Covid.
For those relying on this newfound flexibility, there is a concern about going back to old practices and frameworks that are not conducive to a healthy work-life balance. We have seen reports that we are heading to a period of a masked stability in terms of sickness absence rates, once current restrictions ease and the vaccine roll out takes effect. Workers struggling with mental health symptoms now might try to stay in work due to job insecurity concerns, but this might mean that productivity is affected by presenteeism, followed by a significant increase in sickness absence once things are more stable in the economy. Going forward, discussions around flexible and accommodating workplaces – hybrid models – that also take into account productivity and business needs will be key for individuals with mental health conditions. Hopefully this approach will help to work towards gradually reducing the current pay gap of £8,400.