It was recently reported that poor mental health costs the UK economy £70bn a year, a sum equivalent to 4.5 per cent of our GDP. This is nothing short of a national disaster, primarily in terms of ruined lives but also in terms of lost productivity and economic inefficiency.
It is also, most infuriatingly, an avoidable disaster. We know that mental health correlates strongly with income inequality, and that a reduction in inequality could significantly reduce mental health problems across the UK. But as with many of the economic and social problems associated with our high level of inequality, we seem to prefer to spend money on expensive and complicated solutions, rather than cost-effectively addressing causes. The cost of inequality can be seen measured in the billions we spend on our welfare state: on the nurses, doctors, police, probation officers, prison staff, psychologists and psychiatrists and all the physical buildings and equipment that we provide for these professionals to do their work. Poor mental health drives up the demand for all of these services and the people and assets that deliver them.
This sticking-plaster-on-a-dam approach is also creeping into more and more areas of our economy, not just the public sector. At the lower end of the income spectrum, people are being crow-barred back into work that many are not fit to take on and, once in their new jobs, they are then struggling to stay in them. Further up the income ladder, more and more employees are being urged to be more resilient and a whole industry has now been spawned to help people cope with workplace stress and perform better. Some employers, in a quest to give their staff mental toughness and “edge” even seek to introduce the benefits of sports or military training into their workplaces, despite their businesses bearing no relation whatsoever to a sports arena or a battlefield.
The probable context for all this is the so-called “global race” in which many of our politicians seem to believe we are engaged. Even if we are tempted to accept this rather depressing rats-in-a-sack worldview, our chances of success will surely be far greater if we reduce inequality and thereby tackle the major cause of the various health and social ills that hold back our individual and collective economic performance. In our increasingly insecure, under-employed, low-paid and long-hours economy it would seem fanciful that success will be achieved by simply telling everyone to pull themselves together, “lean in” and work harder.
Carrying on as we are clearly entails massive and sustained threats to our health and well-being. We have a choice: we will either succeed together as part of a fair, robust and supportive economy – or we will each strive individually to gain a short-lived and illusory edge in the unfair, jagged and rickety Heath Robinson-esque economic model we have now. Economics and compassion both strongly suggest that rather than forever patching people up when they fall, we should be doing more to prevent them falling in the first place.
Bill Kerry is a co-founder of The Equality Trust