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Karen Steadman

Mental illness is not synonymous with unemployment: The Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill

Authors: Karen Steadman Karen Steadman

12 February 2013

The introduction of the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill, which received its third reading in the House of Lords yesterday, represents another small but significant step towards addressing the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health conditions in the workplace. It is estimated that one in four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, the most common being anxiety and depression. In recent years there has been increased awareness among employers about the importance of mental health among their employees, with many employers signing up to the responsibility deal, and taking  advantage of advice and support for making reasonable workplace adjustments. Small changes can make the workplace a more supportive and accessible place for someone with a mental health condition.

However, where more severe mental health conditions are concerned, there is still a lot of work to be done. Along with other clauses of the Bill, repealing section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which allowed the disqualification of Members of Parliament who had been detained on the grounds of mental illness, sets a positive societal precedent. We need to continue to move away from the view that the presence of a severe mental health condition means a movement out of the labour force. When considering for example  that a quarter of people experiencing a psychotic episode, after seeking appropriate treatment, will not experience another, how can exclusion from work and therefore also the wider societal benefits associated with work, be justified? Regardless of the job, people with mental health conditions can and should be supported to remain in work.

As seen from our report on schizophrenia and employment, released yesterday (Monday 11th), severe mental health conditions need not be a barrier to employment. It is estimated that only 8% of people with schizophrenia in the UK are employed, against a national employment rate of 71%, despite a large proportion being motivated and able to work.
There are many benefits associated with work for people with severe mental conditions, not just in terms of financial benefits, but also in terms of their health and well-being. Research indicates that people with schizophrenia in paid employment are over five times more likely to achieve functional remission than those who are unemployed or in unpaid employment.

Employment is also seen as beneficial for employers, with skills of individuals being used rather than lost, as well as of the broader economy. Economic analyses of the costs of schizophrenia identified that the exceptionally low employment rate for people with schizophrenia not only represents a huge loss of productive capacity, but also increased costs in terms of welfare payments and reduced tax revenue. The association between improved health outcomes and employment for people with schizophrenia also reduces health and social care costs.  We argue that employment should be a considered as an outcome in the treatment and management of severe mental health conditions - not something that is lost as a result of them.

Our research found that one of the biggest barriers to employment for people with schizophrenia was the diagnosis of schizophrenia itself. For some employers, just hearing the word ‘schizophrenia’ can be enough to prevent employing someone. In this climate, for those already in work the idea of disclosing a severe mental health condition to an employer may feel impossible. Not accessing support to stay in work through fear of the repercussions and misconceptions will often mean that someone is again lost from the labour market. A bit of knowledge, understanding and support can go a long way towards addressing this.

Through implementation of the recommendations made in our report, which address government, the health service and employers as well as people with schizophrenia and their carers, we believe that the employment rate for people with schizophrenia can be increased from 8% to 25% within a decade. The presence of a mental health condition is not a reason to not employ someone or not to allow someone to continue in their role – it is the skills and abilities of the individual which count.