11/12/2014 00:48 GMT | Updated 09/02/2015 05:59 GMT

It's Time for a New Approach to Help People With Mental Health Problems Into Work

It was clear from last week's Autumn Statement and the debate which followed that looking for opportunities to save on public spending will continue to be a priority for whoever forms the next government. With the biggest single budget, the Department for Work and Pensions is often seen as the prime target to make such savings. This government has had a particular focus on reducing the amount spent on support for people out-of-work due to health and disability - looking to move this group into employment. But evidence suggests that this has largely failed for people with mental health problems and, more crucially, has made many people's lives a misery in the process.

People with mental health problems make up nearly half of those on Employment and Support Allowance, the out-of-work benefit for people with disabilities or health conditions. Today, Mind's report We've got work to do highlights that only 5% of people with mental health problems have been supported into employment over the last three years. Worse still, 83 per cent of people told us being on mainstream government back-to-work schemes has made their mental health worse and 76% said they felt less able to work than when they started on the schemes. During the time they had been on these schemes, 86% of respondents said they had needed more support from mental health services and/or their GP, and nearly one in four (24 per cent) had been hospitalised or sectioned in a mental health crisis.

But it doesn't have to be like this. Our report highlights some positive practice in local areas, where schemes are helping people find and keep work. It also highlights the increasing levels of awareness amongst employers, large and small, of mental health in their workplace.

In the eight years I have been CEO of Mind, the issue of work and mental health has been continually rising up the agenda of politicians, employers and health services. There has been increasing recognition that more needs to be done to help people stay well at work, to avoid people falling out of work because of mental health problems, and to support people who are out of work because of their mental health to move closer to work.

We welcome the attention which has been paid to this vital area and have seen some improvements in how people with mental health problems are supported in a range of situations. However, the scale and pace of change has been nowhere near sufficient to meet the level of need. Some forward-thinking employers are beginning to recognise that looking after the wellbeing of their staff reaps rewards in terms of staff loyalty, productivity and reduced sickness absence. However, the majority of workplaces are still reluctant to prioritise the wellbeing of employees while many staff worry about telling their employer if they're experiencing a mental health problem. Huge numbers of people continue to fall out of work because they are not getting the support they need; and too few people with mental health problems are being helped back into work.

The forthcoming General Election presents a welcome opportunity for whoever forms the next Government to look at the bigger picture, learn from the past, and develop bold plans for creating a more positive future. Addressing issues around mental health and employment will be one of the key challenges that the next Government will need to get to grips with and as such, this is one of the key asks we have included in Mind's manifesto, Take action for better mental health.

The high prevalence of mental health problems in the context of work, benefits and back-to-work support means the case for action is indisputable. If the process of in-work, out-of-work and back-to-work support for people with disabilities and health conditions does not work for mental health, then it simply isn't working. After all, mental health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, with 70m sick days in 2013. Furthermore, over a third of people with mild to moderate mental health problems, and almost two thirds of people with more severe mental health problems are unemployed.

According to the Chief Medical Officer, this all leads to a cost to the UK economy, through sickness absence, lost productivity, and benefits expenditure, of £70-£100 billion per year. Even more importantly, it means that hundreds of thousands of people are finding it harder to recover from their mental health problems because they are not getting the support they need.

Our new report brings together years of Mind's work in this area to explain how and why the workplace, the benefits system, and back-to-work schemes are so often failing to provide the support that people with mental health problems need to stay in, return to, or start work. We've set out our vision of what needs to be done to create a system that works. We want to see more specialised, personalised support programmes which understand and address the problems many people with mental health problems have in getting into and staying in work.

There is a significant prize here for all concerned. For people with mental health problems, a chance to find appropriate work in a supportive workplace; for employers, the opportunity to support the mental health of all staff; and for the wider economy, the potential to deliver a significant change to our society.