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TUC disabled workers' conference 2017

22 May 2017

Only a quarter of people with a mental illness or phobia, lasting for 12 months or more, are in work, a report published by the TUC during its Disabled Workers’ Conference has revealed.

The report, Mental health and employment, contained analysis of official employment statistics, which found that while 4 in 5 non-disabled people were in work, people with mental illness, anxiety or depression had substantially lower employment rates. It found:

Only 1 in 4 (26.2%) people with a mental illness lasting (or expected to last) more than a year are in work.

Fewer than half (45.5%) of people with depression or anxiety lasting more than 12 months are in work.

The report suggested that employers were failing to make adequate changes in the workplace to enable people with mental illnesses, anxiety or depression to get a job, or stay in work. The employment rate for disabled people is increasing, but too slowly for the government to reach its target of halving the disability employment gap by 2020. The TUC estimated that it would take until 2025 for those classified in official figures as having long-term depression and anxiety, and until 2029 for people classified as having long-term mental illness to gain employment.

Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said:

“It’s simply not good enough that so few people with long-term mental health problems are able to stay in work. Not only is the economy missing out on the skills and talents these workers have, but having to leave your job can worsen your mental health.
“Simple steps like giving an employee paid time off to go to counselling appointments can make a huge difference. All over the country, union reps are helping working people who have mental health conditions. It’s one of the many reasons why everyone should get together with their workmates and join a union.”

During an afternoon session of motions dealing with the issue of mental health, delegates heard the moving testimony of Jason Brown, the former Gillingham and Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper. He said he had been abused as a child and suffered other traumatic incidents, including racial abuse, but tried to block them out by working hard on the training ground and in the gym. Now retired from playing, he said: “I am picking up the pieces.”

He said that during his career as a player he was not able to admit he suffered from depression and developed an eating disorder, started to drink heavily and contemplated suicide.

He said he was speaking out because he wanted to end the stigma of depression and mental health problems and make it easier for people to say they had a problem. The world of football was tough and competitive and only a very small percentage earned huge salaries, he said. There had also been a macho culture of bullying by managers and team members.

He said: “Footballers in the lower divisions are often on short-term contracts and don’t know from one match to the next whether their career is about to end. For those in the top flight, it may be difficult for fans to understand that they can be football stars earning lots of money but still suffer from depression.”

Jason is now working with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to persuade clubs that they have a duty of care to their footballers and he has been involved with the union in providing care, including wellbeing workshops for members.

Michael Bennett, the PFA’s head of welfare, said that more professional footballers had sought counselling this year than in the whole of 2016.

The NUJ’s motion, proposed by Mik Scarlet, called for the TUC to campaign to improve policy and support available for disabled people seeking employment. It pointed out that many disabled people working in the creative industries and journalism were often freelances, not always out of choice, as a means to manage work around their impairment.

A motion from Equity highlighted the Arts Council England’s latest diversity report which found that 26 of organisations it funded had no disabled employees, with the English National Opera, the Roundhouse and Opera North having no disabled people on their permanent staff.

The NUJ’s motion said that disabled people on Employment and Support Allowance were obstructed by a highly inflexible system and that Access to Work provisions were increasingly harder to secure and not helpful in putting in place adjustments to help disabled people at work.

The union has responded to the Department for Work and Pensions green paper Lives: Work, Health and Disability and argued that the government’s language was based on the medical model approach to disability, rather than the social model of disability. The NUJ’s delegates supported a motion which called for the need “to truly embed the social model of disability in employment, with its emphasis on the removal of barriers to inclusion” and that employers needed to do more than the minimum legally required of them for the benefit of their disabled employees.

Ann Galpin, NUJ delegate, said:

“I have been coming to the TUC’s disabled workers’ conference for about a decade and during my first in 2006 mental health issues were not even on the agenda. So I was very pleased that we had an afternoon’s session discussing mental health and work. The policy of austerity has had a huge impact on disabled workers and the increase of zero-hours contracts has led to increased stress and greater job insecurity. 
“It is good that people such as Jason Brown and Stephen Fry, and recently the royals, are talking in public about mental health problems, but in the workplace the stigma remains. In many cases all that is needed is flexibility and more guidance for employers.”

Ann also proposed an emergency motion calling for the TUC to campaign to ensure that disabled refugees were made a priority. She and Ann Coltart were responsible for organising the conference’s social event, a showing of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, and Mik Scarlet led a discussion afterwards.

NUJ advice on mental health and stress

Accessible Apprenticeships - a TUC guide for reps bargaining for accessible apprenticeships was also launced at the conference.

The NUJ motion in full:

More support for disabled people seeking or in work

Conference notes that many disabled people working in the creative industries and journalism are ‘atypical’ workers, often freelances, who use self-employment as a means to manage work around their impairment. Not always by choice.

According to the Shaw Trust there are currently 1.3 million disabled people in the UK who are available for and want to work and only half of disabled people of working age are in work (50 per cent), compared with 80 per cent of non-disabled people.

The Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) green paper pledges to halve the disability employment gap but gives limited consideration to the needs of self-employed disabled people and disabled people with higher levels of education and work experience trying to retain/gain employment.

Disabled people on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are obstructed by a highly inflexible system. Since changes to Personal Independence Payments were introduced, 14,000 disabled people have had their adapted mobility vehicle taken away from them.

Access to Work provisions are increasingly harder to secure and miss important opportunities to liaise with employers to make reasonable adjustments and speak to disabled people themselves who are best placed to advise on and provide support for disabled people.

Conference calls on the TUC to:

campaign to improve policy and support available for disabled people seeking employment and for those managing disability around work including quicker assessment and implementation of reasonable adjustments.

The TUC has called on the government and employers to take the following action to help eliminate the disability employment gap:

Workplace policies

  • Employers have a legal obligation to put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. For people experiencing mental health problems, this could include time off for counselling or other medical appointments, changes to their role, moving their workplace or allowing for homeworking.
  • An employer may adjust the sickness absence policy for disabled staff where time off is related to a disability. This is in recognition that some disabled people may have different and higher forms of sickness absence and the policy needs to be adjusted accordingly.
  • As stigma remains a huge barrier, it may be useful to consider suitable awareness-raising exercises which could include working with trade unions, disabled staff and mental health charities on awareness-raising sessions at lunchtime.
  • Employers should create a workplace wellbeing policy which looks at the issue of mental health holistically. This can include information on regular breaks, reducing workplace stress, the importance of physical activity and signposting to relevant agencies.
  • On mental health, like other disability issues, efforts should be made to consult with staff who have experienced mental ill-health. This is in keeping with the notion that disabled people themselves should be able to determine the solutions to the issues they face.
  •  Employers should include reference to mental health in the sickness absence policy.
  • Ensuring senior managers champion awareness of mental health and fight to remove the stigma around mental health in the workplace.
  • Engaging with the recognised trade union so they can input into all policies related to mental health to ensure collective equality rights for disabled workers.

Government policies to support people with mental health conditions at work

  • The government should abolish tribunal fees to make it easier for those people with mental ill-health who have experienced discrimination in the workplace to access justice.
  • The government can make more effort to widely promote Access to Work for people with mental health problems if government funding is required for the adjustments. Access to Work is a government scheme which helps employers gain funding to make adjustments to the workplace to enable disabled people to work.
  • The government should stop cuts to disabled people’s financial support which make it harder for disabled people to survive and even harder to access work. This includes cuts to Employment and Support Allowance which supports people out of work, and to the Personal Independence Payment, which can support people both in and out of the workplace.

Tags: , tuc, equality, disabled workers' conference, frances o'grady, jason brown, michael bennett, refugees, dwp, depression, mental health