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Mental health awareness days won't fix bad bosses and insecure work

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The causes of poor mental health at work must be tackled by employers, not made the responsibility of workers.

We spend a significant amount of our adult life at work. In fact, UK workers work longer hours than any other country in Europe .

Long hours coupled with the longest pay squeeze since Victorian times and a rise in insecure work can impact on workers’ stress levels, mental health and wellbeing.

HSE statistics published this week show 602,000 workers are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing, 2018/19), with workload cited as the most common reason.

The UK’s labour market in the 21st century is increasingly precarious for many, with a proliferation of zero-hours contracts and one-way employer flexibility meaning more workers having to take on additional jobs or hours to make ends meet.

A lack of control over working hours, worries about paying the bills and rising insecurity can cause huge amount of stress for workers, and negatively impact peoples’ mental health and wellbeing.

And young workers are disproportionately impacted by these trends.

Fewer employment rights, especially for young workers

Poor mental health does not exclusively impact on young people.

But evidence shows an increase in common mental health conditions in children and young people, with one in six young people aged 16 to 24 presenting symptoms of a common mental health disorder such as depression or an anxiety.

Young workers are overrepresented in low-paying jobs and insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts, agency and casual work.

We found that 40 per cent of workers of agency contracts or in casual work are aged 16 – 24, and 36 per cent of workers on zero-hours contracts are aged under 25.

Insecure work means missing out on some core workplace rights too, and low pay means we may not be eligible for statutory sick pay, meaning we can’t take time off work when we feel ill or stressed.

8 in 10 zero-hours contract workers don’t receive sick pay, even though 76 per cent say this is an important or very important right to have.

Employers don't take responsibility

The national conversation about mental health and wellbeing at work has progressed in many ways.

However employers are increasingly signing up to “awareness days” and “wellbeing initiatives” without investing in the resources, policies and training to support them.

These initiatives often encourage workers to divulge mental health issues, and focus on fixing the individual through “resilience”, rather than recognising the drivers of stress and poor mental health as a workplace issue that should be tackled collectively.

Posters encouraging workers to talk about their mental health issues is not an inherently bad idea, but only if the support is there – trade union recognition, a robust sickness policy, a fair disciplinary and grievance process.

Disclosing poor health to hostile employers can open workers up for discrimination, with an expectation that anxiety or depression are things that can be “fixed” within a given time period, if only the worker just “pushed some boundaries” and “kept smiling” (sadly, these are recent, real world examples).

Similarly, yoga classes, free fruit and playing with cute puppies can be fun, but they are also a lot cheaper for employers than cutting out zero-hours contracts, flexible working and paying the real living wage, whilst still seemingly looking like they care about staff wellbeing.

Austerity means there’s nowhere left to turn

Mental health services, like too many areas of the public sector, have experienced an unprecedented funding squeeze, leaving services understaffed and overstretched.

Four fifths of finance directors of NHS Trusts say financial pressures have led to people waiting longer to get help from mental health services in the past two years alone

This has meant fewer people being able to access the critical help and services when they need them most.

Trade unions leading the way

We have seen huge improvements to health, safety and wellbeing law at work thanks to campaigning by trade unions.

But this progress, particularly around mental health and wellbeing, doesn’t always manifest in the workplace. Reps report that workplace stress continues to be the number one health and safety concern at work.

Every day unions are supporting members, negotiating better policies and holding employers to account on mental health in the workplace.

As well as continuing and expanding this great work, we must force employers and the government to tackle the causes of workplace stress and poor mental health at the source.

This means getting a £10 an hour living wage , banning zero-hour contracts and stamping out harassment and abuse at work. Staying healthy and happy at work is not down to individual workers to figure out on their own.

Young Workers Month starts on 1 November and runs until the end of the month. It provides a dedicated, annual space for the movement to work together to give voice to young workers. #youngworkersmonth