Personal support interventions may help tackle illness in the workplace

19 May 2016 By Carl Packman, Financial Health Exchange

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation is raising awareness of how we can manage mental health in the workplace.  This is a really important issue, so today the Financial Health Exchange looks at how money problems – and being able to talk about them openly – also affects our ability to work.

Back in 2012 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) carried out a study of workplace health, sickness absence and incapacity to work with the Leicestershire Fit for Work Service.

Surprisingly they found that, while 61 per cent of referrals to their service were for people with mental health problems, only 7 per cent of people who had returned to work cited mental health therapy as the most important intervention. Instead human interventions (debt/legal/housing/personal support) were reported as being far more valuable.

The inference made by NICE was that de-medicalising long term sickness absence was appropriate for the majority of people being referred to them. It also gave insight into the often hidden reasons for why people fall ill, which is particularly relevant during Mental Health Awareness week.

A subject that often goes unspoken is the emotional and health impacts of debt and financial distress. Previously assumed as separate issues, research is now being conducted to explore the extent to which there is a link between the two and what the implications are for agencies such as financial institutions and employers.

The difficulty of both subjects is the stigma so often attached to them. One reason for having awareness weeks is because of the difficulty people face in seeking the appropriate services and advice. Experiencing problems relating to mental health and debt can be doubly difficult.

In more recent times consumer forums have been a useful outlet for people who might initially struggle with seeking face-to-face services. Researchers at the Political Economy Research Centre (PERC) carried out an analysis of various peer forums for consumers (Consumer Action Group, Money Saving Expert, and Mumsnet) to find themes relating to debt and mental health.

They found three themes including:

  • “The downward spiral of health and debt”: where a sudden income shock led to an inability to pay debts which in turn resulted in the feelings of entrapment and depression.
  • “The psychological injuries of debt”: where there resulted a number of linkages between debt and mental health such as the feeling of guilt and shame, how mental health difficulties made repaying debts harder, and the extent to which debt can lead to a damaging effect on relationships and family life.
  • “Repaying one’s debt is not necessarily empowering”: where the struggle to become debt-free can mean that debt permeates that individual’s whole life.

These themes speak to the two most important aspects of this awareness week: that we highlight the existence of mental health problems, their impacts and causes, to ensure these issues do not fall under the radar. But also to raise awareness for the places and people we have relationships with (family, employers etc) so they can plan for the appropriate provision of services for the future.