Mental health issues cost the UK around £70 billion each year, or around 4.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in lost productivity at work, benefits payments and healthcare expenditures, says the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Around one million claimants on the UK Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and as many on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and other working-age benefits, have a mental disorder such as anxiety and depression that is hurting their prospects of finding work, says OECD, in a new report which calls for better policies and practices by employers and the health system to help people deal with mental health issues and get them back to work.

Acting early is the best way to prevent poor mental health leading to benefit dependency, both when people are still at work and early on during the sick-leave period, the report argues. And retaining a job is easier than finding a new one; up to 370,000 Britons move onto disability benefit every year, or 1% of the working-age population, the highest rate in the developed world and twice the OECD average. 

The leading cause for such benefit claims is mental illness, now accounting for around 40% of all new claims.

Most benefit claimants with mental health problems need a combination of health and employment interventions to improve their changes of finding a suitable job, says OECD. The NHS has increased services, so access to common mental health treatments is much better than it was five years ago, but waiting lists are still too long in some areas.

Positive changes are also taking place to inform general practitioners (GPs) about common mental disorders and return-to-work issues, but more systematic action in dealing with workplace matters is needed through a revised training curriculum, it says.

OECD calls on the UK to:

- ensure the new Health and Work Service is implemented quickly and universally, with a strong focus on mental health and those still in work and with much stronger involvement of employers;

- increase attention to mental health and its impact on employability and work capacity in all parts of the welfare system;

- increase resources and refine financial incentives for employment service providers to ensure better outcomes for customers with mental health problems;

- build on recently-improved integration of health and employment services to ensure that integrated health/employment interventions are widely available; and

- further expand access to psychological therapies for those with a common mental disorder.