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David Baxter

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[UK] New drive to improve employers' attitude to the mentally ill
Sunday, 15-Oct-2006

A new initiative encouraging employers to improve the way they deal with mental health in the workplace has been launched by Health Minister Rosie Winterton to mark World Mental Health Day.

The three year initiative, called 'Action on Stigma', urges employers to sign up to a set of anti-stigma principles - for example, demonstrating that they have made changes in their work environment and employment practices to ensure that people with mental health problems are treated fairly and equally with others.

Many employers who have taken part in projects to make their workplace culture more 'mental health friendly' have reported reduced staff turnover and sickness absences. Despite this:

  • Only about 20% of people with severe mental health problems are employed, compared to 65% of people with physical health problems and 75% for the whole adult population
  • Even for people with more common types of mental illness, such as depression, only about half are competitively employed
  • However, people with mental health problems have the highest 'want to work rate' with up to 90% wanting to work, compared to 52% for disabled people generally.
Although some of the principles are voluntary, adopting them will help public sector organisations, including local councils, government departments and hospitals, to meet the requirements of a new duty under the Disability Discrimination Act which comes into force in December 2006. This will require them to set out precisely how they intend to eliminate unlawful discrimination and promote equality of opportunity.

Speaking at a visit to a programme run by Oxleas Mental Health Trust in South East London to encourage businesses to employ people with mental health problems, Rosie Winterton said:

"There is no better time than World Mental Health day to remind people that one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives and the cost to business and society is substantial. Ignorance and stigma still surrounds the issue of mental ill-health and when someone does develop a problem, they often do not get the support they need from society to help them recover.

"We all have a role to play in helping to tackle this issue. Employers can help by raising awareness of mental health issues amongst staff, supporting those affected and combating discrimination against staff and customers. This is good for staff and good for employers, who we know will benefit from reduced staff turnover and sickness absences.

"Our priority must be to get our own house in order, so the first target of this drive will be the NHS and other public service organisations."​

Service user Emma Lindley, 27, of Manchester, said she was "ostracised" after she being off sick from an adminstrative job at a college of higher education for two months while being treated for bipolar disorder.

She added: "Some colleagues avoided me and dropped their eyes rather than have to greet me. Others began to patronise me even though they had always given me professional respect previously. People talked about me as though I wasn't there or fell out with me for no reason.

"I began applying for jobs very soon after returning because of the way I was treated. I left the post a few months later."

The Department of Health has published a document (PDF format) setting out the principles, highlighting existing best practice and the vision for the 'Action on Stigma' initiative. It also announced the start of a listening exercise to find out the views of employers and what support they will need to meet these principles.

Additional information can be found at the Action on Stigma webpage.
 

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