Employment is vital for maintaining good mental health

These are economically hard times for everyone, with rates of unemployment reaching 2.61 million nationally (Office of National Statistics, Labour Market Statistics, June 2012) - but what's the impact on people with mental health problems, who are traditionally more likely to become unemployed and can often find it harder to regain employment?

The most recent figures available show that only around 27% of working age adults in England with a mental illness are in employment. The rate of employment for people with a mental illness is currently used by the government as one way of measuring people’s quality of life, and with good reason. Being in work is important for everyone’s general health and well-being: it gives us a purpose (and an income), promotes independence, allows us to develop social contacts, and is a factor in preventing both physical and mental health problems.

For those with mental health problems, being employed can be an important step to recovery, improving self-esteem and confidence and reducing psychological distress. Conversely, unemployment increases the risk of developing mental health problems, and is associated with increased rates of depression and suicide as well as higher use of health services and hospital admission. Employment is therefore vital for maintaining good mental health and promoting recovery from mental health problems.

The 27% of working age adults in England with a mental illness in employment compares with around 70% of the working age population as a whole being economically active. We know that people with a mental illness are more likely to become unemployed, and research has suggested that less than 40% of employers would consider employing someone with a mental health problem. This is despite around 85-90% of people with a mental illness who are not employed saying that they would like to work.

Figures (see below) from the NHS Outcomes Framework data collection show that the percentage of people with a mental illness in work rose gradually between 2006 and 2010, growing to around 30% at its peak in the beginning of 2010. This was very encouraging. However, it has begun to fall once again (perhaps not surprisingly given the recession) which is worrying, particularly if this trend is found to continue through 2011 and into 2012.

In order to reverse this downward trend, people with mental health problems who feel able to begin work need to be supported to gain and stay in employment by health services, employment services (such as the Government’s Access To Work programme) and employers themselves.

Employers can support employees with mental health problems in a number of ways, including providing flexible working arrangements, allowing gradual return to work after time off or providing counselling or peer support services. Indeed, employers are legally obliged to provide appropriate working arrangements for employees, making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to prevent disabled employees from being disadvantaged at work. So part of the challenge is to make sure employers can access timely and appropriate advice and information about employing, and supporting, people with mental health problems.