Chancellor expands access to mental health support to get more back into work

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has announced measures to expand access to Talking Therapies and extend the universal support programme that matches people with health conditions with vacancies as part of a £1.3bn bid to help almost 700,000 people with health conditions back into work.

In his Autumn Statement today, Hunt said more than 100,000 people were signed off on sickness or disability benefits each year, ‘with no requirement to look for work’.

‘That waste of potential is wrong economically and wrong morally,’ he added.

According to Hunt, expanding Talking Therapies, NHS England’s flagship programme for the treatment of mild and moderate health conditions, will see an additional 384,000 people complete a course of treatment by 2028/29. Additional funding will also increase the number of sessions per course.

The number of people who are economically inactive due to long-term sickness who reported a mental health condition has been on an upward trend, rising by over 35% between 2019 and 2023. The Chancellor said the government was committing £795m over the next five years to tackle the root causes of mental health problems and support people to remain in or return to work.

People with severe mental illness will also be supported to gain and retain paid employment through the expansion of employment support services within community mental health teams and the number of placements on the universal support programme will be doubled to 100,000.

The measures are part of the government’s Back to Work Plan launched earlier this month to help tackle economic inactivity and drive productivity.

‘Over the forecast period, the OBR judge these measures will more than halve the net flow of people who are signed off work with no work search requirements,’ said Hunt.

He also announced plans to establish an expert group to develop a voluntary framework for a minimum level of occupational health interventions employers could adopt. In addition, it will work with employers and business representatives to promote best practices for employees with health and disability issues.

There are also plans to reform fit notes with a new consultation in 2024 examining options for improving assessments and integrating quicker access to specialised employment and health support.

Group Risk Development (GriD) spokesperson Katharine Moxham said it was encouraging to see the positive steps being taken to support people back to work from long-term unemployment and disability.

However, she called on the government to go much further to address how people fall out of work in the first place and do more to help people with fluctuating health conditions.

‘It’s vital to explore how people end up being economically inactive. In many cases, employees wouldn’t leave work if they were better supported by their employer. Employers will find help within their benefits package for supporting those whose health presents a barrier to work,’ she said.

David Williams, head of group risk at Towergate Health & Protection said the Chancellor had missed the opportunity to do more on prevention and employee benefits.

‘There was a lot of focus on tax breaks and NI reductions which will no doubt be welcomed by employers and employees alike. However, the government’s ‘Back To Work Plan’ key points were too focused on sick and disabled adults already out of work, rather than how to prevent the illnesses in the first place. It also omits to mention how employers can manage absent employees more effectively to avoid losing them from the workforce,’ he said.

Williams said tax breaks for employers or subsidies for services such as mental health counselling, employee assistance programmes and cognitive behaviour therapy would enable employers to support their workers and help prevent their illness in the first place.

‘Perhaps some of those employers who find themselves with extra cash from the tax and NI breaks will consider reinvesting that cash in their employees’ health and show the government the power of tackling health and absence management issues at source,’ he added.