An unemployed man walks through a street in Accrington, Lancashire. Photograph: Getty Images
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Decoding the unemployment figures exposes the truth behind the coalition’s spin

It is clear that the coalition is bad for jobs.

In August 2009 George Osborne said it would be “humiliating” if Britain’s AAA credit rating was downgraded and later that it was “absolutely essential we don’t have the downgrade that hangs over the country at the moment”. In the Commons in 2011, our part-time chancellor gloated that “our credit rating had been put on negative watch. Now, however, thanks to the policies of this coalition government, Britain has economic stability again.” Presumably the inference is that, after the Moody’s downgrading of the UK’s AAA rating on 22 February, we now have economic instability. Osborne suggested that maintaining the AAA rating was the number-one benchmark by which he should be judged, so we need to keep him to his word. It isn’t as if he wasn’t warned. And we seem to be heading for a sterling crisis, as there is growing pressure on the pound.

The only bit of apparently good news for the government came from the labour market. On 20 February, the Office for National Statistics reported that in the past quarter UK unemployment had fallen by 14,000 and employment had reached a “record” level of 29.7 million. Many took this as a vindication of the government’s economic strategy but it wasn’t. Youth unemployment was up by 11,000 and real wages fell once again. Also, the working-age population has risen, so the employment rate, calculated as a proportion of the working-age population, was below its old level spanning the entire period from 1997 through to the start of 2008.

The government’s claim that it has created a million private-sector jobs is false. Over the past two years public-sector employment has fallen 521,000 while private-sector employment has increased by just over one million, a net increase of about half a million jobs. But of the one million “new” private-sector jobs the coalition claims were “created”, a fifth were obtained by cheating, because lecturers in further education and sixth-form colleges were reclassified from the public to the private sector last spring. Fiddling the data isn’t the same as creating private-sector jobs.

It turns out that the news on the labour market isn’t very good. In fact, the unemployment rate no longer captures the full picture of spare capacity in the market, as many workers are employed but say they would like to work more hours and well over a million part-timers want to go full-time. These workers are “hours-constrained”. In part, this is related to real wages not growing, and many firms have reduced overtime and extra shift payments. The jobless rate takes no account of this “underutilisation” of the workforce.

Together with David Bell, professor of economics at the University of Stirling, I have devised a new “underemployment index”. It is based on the idea that the best possible outcome for the labour market would be one in which every worker is able to work the number of hours he or she wants. There is a host of reasons why this nirvana will not be realised, but it is a useful concept, in the sense that deviations from it could occur because some workers are unemployed, or because some workers already in a job are offered fewer hours than they would like, or both. The size of the deviation measures the real level of excess capacity in the UK labour market.

We use data on individuals from the Lab - our Force Survey that is released to researchers, and is used to calculate the number of unemployed. We then calculate the number of hours unemployed people would work if they had a job, assuming they work the number of hours that we calculate are consistent with their characteristics. We add these to the extra hours existing workers say they would like to work and we subtract the hours of those who wish to cut their hours. Finally, we calculate a rate that measures the proportion by which actual hours fall short of desired hours. The graph (below) shows both our index and the published unemployment rate for the period 2001-2012.

There are two clear messages from our index. First, underemployment consistently adds to the measured excess labour capacity in the UK labour market. Even though unemployment rates were low between 2001 and 2007, our index exceeded the unemployment rate by 36 per cent on average between 2001 and 2007 and by 38.7 per cent between 2008 and the second quarter of 2010. Those wanting to work more hours consistently exceed those who want to work fewer hours in the UK labour market.

Second, since the start of the recession, underemployment has been contributing an increasing share of overall excess labour capacity in the UK. Unemployment may not have increased much recently, but there has been a substantial rise in the number of extra hours that those already employed would like to work. Our index exceeded the unemployment rate by 42.4 per cent between the second quarter of 2010 and the third quarter of 2012, down from 44.9 per cent in the second quarter of 2012. In the last two quarters for which we have data, our measure of excess capacity is higher – at 43.8 per cent under this coalition – than it has been since our series started in 2001 or the recession began in 2008.

It might seem better to have some work rather than none and, therefore, there might be a tendency to discount short-time working as not much of a problem. But our latest research also suggests that this group is almost as unhappy as the unemployed. Furthermore, when (and if) the upturn comes, reductions in unemployment will be delayed, as it is likely that those already employed will be offered extra hours before new workers are hired.

It is clear that the coalition is bad for jobs.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman. This column is written jointly with David Bell

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius