Charles Walker calls on companies to recognise the importance of employees’ mental well-being

Charles Walker MP speaking in the House of Commons

Speaking in a debate on mental health and unemployment, Charles Walker calls on the Government to find a way to encourage employers to recognise that the mental well-being of their employees is just as important as their physical well-being. He calls on companies that have a workplace mental health policy to speak out to encourage other companies to do the same.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.

Mental health in the workplace is undoubtedly hugely important, but mental health is a continuum throughout life. It starts in the earliest years when it is a matter of the relationship between a baby and their mother and father. If we can improve those early years, we improve children’s chances of having good mental health throughout their lives.

Mental health is about resilience and building resilience. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be concerned, as I am, that headmasters in primary and secondary schools now talk about the levels of self-harm in their schools. It is extraordinarily worrying that young children at primary and secondary school are self-harming. They feel so desperate, so out of control, so out of touch, perhaps, with their peers, that the only way they can relieve that pressure is through harming themselves, through cutting themselves. Of course, mental illness manifests itself in other ways, such as depression and a feeling of isolation.

If we are to enable workplaces to flourish, we need to ensure that our young people can flourish. I urge the Government, in looking at the mental health piece, to see it as a joined-up continuum. Without good mental health in the early years and in schools, we will not have good mental health in the workplace, despite the best efforts of employers.

The truth is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) have identified, the longer one is out of work, the less chance there is of rejoining work. A couple of years ago, President Obama’s mental health adviser came to speak in the United Kingdom, and a huge amount of work has been done in the United States about exclusion from the workplace. It just is simply the case that if people have a mental health crisis at work and leave that workplace for even a short period, their chances of returning are diminished, and the longer they are away, the less chance they have of getting back into any form of work. We need to be mindful of that. I congratulate the Minister for recognising that. I know that he is doing some important thinking in this area. An article yesterday in the Evening Standard described the efforts, led by the Minister, to ensure that people who have been out of work for a long period have the pathways back into work.

Why is work important? It is important because a lot of the time it is fun. It is not fun all of the time; nothing is fun all of the time. But a lot of the time work is fun. It is challenging. It is where we socialise. It is where we meet and make friends. It is where we become part of a team. It is where we achieve. It is where we have success. It is sad to think that there are people who have mental health problems—a period of mental unwellness—who are excluded from this environment, from all those successes, all the things that we enjoy and, on occasions, take for granted.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham—I call him my hon. Friend because I have known him for so many years and we have talked about this on so many occasions that it would be churlish to call him anything but my hon. Friend—made a very insightful and incisive point: what does success look like? Success will not always be going straight into a full-time job. Actually, success might be never going back into a full-time job. Success for one individual might be leaving their home and going out to do some voluntary work for the third sector, perhaps starting off by working one or two days every couple of weeks, moving to one day a week, and then to three or four days a week. It means engaging with the community, being part of a team and being valued and appreciated as an individual. I hope that the option of progressing back into full-time work will be available to all people, but let us not set that as the only benchmark, because for some it will be unobtainable. We need to ensure that there is a way back to some form of engagement in the workplace that meets the spiritual and emotional needs of people recovering from a mental health setback.

A number of colleagues have rightly focused on the efforts of British Telecom, and I would also like to mention Legal & General. They recognise that mental health impacts on all their performers, including their high performers. A good employer should not want to lose anyone for the wrong reasons, but they certainly do not want to lose their best and most productive employees. I do not think that there is anything wrong with British Telecom making a commercial decision that it is in its interests to ensure that it supports its work force. Indeed, it is to be applauded for doing so.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam observed, where are the other employers? We know that they are out there, because it cannot just be two—BT and Legal & General. They need to make some noise. We do not want them to be shy. We want them to stand up, shoulder to shoulder, and say, “This is important to us.” If more companies said that, others would want to stand up and say it too, and then we will get a movement going—we like nothing more in this place than getting a movement going. We will have many voices saying in unison, “This is important to us.” Those voices might employ just a few people locally, but they employ up to tens of thousands nationally.

As has already been observed, we cannot separate mental well-being from physical well-being. Many employers now have company gyms and all sorts of schemes to get their employers fit and healthy physically, but mental well-being is just as important—perhaps even more so—and that is where more focus and emphasis is needed.

We must also ensure that people who are going through a period of difficulty and turmoil have good coping mechanisms and strategies. Again, the employer can be at the forefront of that. It is not always the case, but too often people who are struggling can find that their coping mechanisms revolve around substance abuse and misuse, and that is in no one’s interests—not the employee’s, not their family’s and not their employer’s. We need employers to be at the forefront by not only looking at their staff’s physical health, but placing a huge premium and emphasis on their mental well-being.

Paul Burstow: My hon. Friend is making some incredibly important points. What does he think about a possible requirement—voluntary or otherwise—on companies to report on their human capital, because it is an important risk factor for investors if companies do not properly look after their staff and have higher turnover rates as a result? I wonder whether that might push employers to focus on these matters more.

Mr Walker: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will conclude my speech by answering it. Most companies like to talk about the importance they place on human capital, but I suspect that very few do it very well. That is why I think it is so important for good employers to stand up and say, “This is what we are doing and it can be audited, so you can prove for yourselves that we are doing what it says on the tin.” I am not into naming and shaming companies, or coercion—that is the wrong way to go—but there has to be a premium and a reward placed on good practice. I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham in saying to Government that we need to give that some thought. We do not want to come up with a stick; we want to come up with carrots so that good employers are celebrated, and celebrated loudly.

4.20 pm

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