November 01, 2018

"Too ill to work and too broke not to": Should mental health sick leave be more flexible?

"Too ill to work and too broke not to": Should mental health sick leave be more flexible?

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute has called for flexible, part-time sick leave for those struggling with mental health issues in the UK. 

The charity released a report today, outlining how 2.3 million people in the UK have seen the amount of paid work they are able to do affected and how this has left many facing severe financial difficulties, and even homelessness. 

Many people are trapped in a vicious cycle of being “too ill to work, and too broke not to,” which prolongs their recovery from the illness. 

Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert founded the charity to address the statistic that people with mental health problems are three times as likely to face problem debt. 

One of those people was Sarah James, who said she had to take time off work on three occasions due to her mental health. She was left with a “massive amount of debt,” which left her struggling to buy food or pay bills. 

IZA World of Labor author, Richard Layard, comments on the financial difficulties of mental health in his article “the economics of mental health.” He proposes more investment in psychological therapies as “therapy boosts both employment and output, with gains exceeding the cost of treatment.”

He also notes: “Progress in evidence-based psychological therapies, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, has resulted in 50% recovery rates for people with clinical depression or chronic anxiety disorders and substantial improvements for others.”

On the other hand, the institute suggests that tweaks to the benefits system, phased returns to work, and more flexible sick pay could all help workers in similar situations to Mrs James. 

Other recommendations given by the report are to make income replacements sufficient to meet people’s needs by increasing access to statutory sick pay. Also, to increase access to income protection products, introduce short-term savings within auto-enrolment, and raise the Employment Support Allowance assessment rate in line with statutory sick pay. 

Helen Undy, director of the institute, said: “For thousands of people in the UK, sick days are a luxury they just can’t afford. Many with mental health problems are finding themselves too ill to work and too broke not to—choosing between causing harm to their mental health by working, or harm to their finances by taking time to recover.

“We want to see the government and employers taking urgent steps to improve sick pay, access to benefits and other income protection, so that a mental health diagnosis is not the first step out of the workforce.”

Theresa May has promised a £2 billion boost for UK mental health services in her bid to tackle “burning injustices.”