Improving Mental Capital and Wellbeing: A Foresight Programme

Impact Area: Innovation in health and social care

Institution: Lancaster University Management School

Leading Academic: Professor Cary Cooper

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Mental ill-health costs the economy £77 billion a year in England alone, according to a pioneering study by leading stress and wellbeing expert Professor Cary Cooper of the Centre for Performance-Led HR, and four other distinguished scientists. Stress and lack of wellbeing at work costs £25.9bn per annum in sickness absence, presenteeism (being at work but not at full mental capacity or efficiency) and labour turnover.

Professor Cooper was appointed lead scientist on the Mental Capital and Wellbeing Foresight project, commissioned by the UK Government Office for Science to inform its vision and future policy. He was also lead scientist on one of its five programme pathways – ‘Work and Wellbeing’.

The Foresight Programme aimed to address key challenges identified by the government as likely to have a major impact over the next 40 years on working patterns and lifestyles. These include shifting age demographics, changes in the global economy, new science and technology as well as changing attitudes, values and expectations.

Over the two years of the project, Cooper and his colleagues commissioned more than 85 international science reviews from 400 leading experts to assess what factors influence individuals’ mental health right across their lives. This research is the first in the world to develop both evidence-based policy recommendations and a cost-benefit analysis that shows the financial impact of those policies on organisations and the wider economy.

Key findings included:

  • The need to catch learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia (difficulty in understanding numbers), early enough to prevent significant health costs and increases in antisocial behavior
  • Better identification of common mental disorders, such as stress, depression and anxiety, to prevent further growth in the current figure of 1 in 6 people with these disorders.
  • Fear of unemployment – uncertainty around job security and longer working hours have increased stress at work, and stress is now the leading cause of sickness absence in the developed and emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries
  • Earlier diagnosis and better treatment regimes for dementia, important given an increasingly elderly population. The findings revealed that the cost of dementia, over the next 30 years, will rise from £17bn to £50bn.
  • A need for managers to focus on developing their social and interpersonal skills to enable them to manage people properly; that more time and money should be invested in flexible working arrangements; and that conducting anonymous stress audits would be beneficial for monitoring the wellbeing of employees (from the ‘Work & Wellbeing’ pathway evidence).

The findings were disseminated to the highest levels of government, including the Department of Health, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Department of Education and the Permanent Secretaries and as well as to government abroad. They were also published as a book, Mental Capital and Wellbeing. (MCW)

Benefits and impact

Instrumental Impact

The key recommendations generated from the report identified a simple “five-a-day” programme of social and personal tasks that can promote mental wellbeing as well as physical fitness that individuals should be encouraged to build into their daily lives; ‘Five ways to Wellbeing messages’. The actions were: 1. Connect with others, 2.Be active, 3. Take notice of your surroundings, 4. Keep learning and 5. Give to your neighbours and communities. The actions were published as a postcard set that has been used by organisations throughout the world.

  • The results informed the 2011 cross-governmental white paper ‘No Health Without Mental Health’, which sets out shared objectives for improving mental health and wellbeing and improving services for people with mental health problems.
  • The research has also informed a change proposed under the Children and Families Bill to allow parents with children up to the age of 17 to apply for flexible working arrangements. This has only previously only been possible for those with children aged 6 or under.
  • The Department of Health’s ‘New Horizons: A Shared Vision of Mental Health’. The MCW informed the work of Age Concern and Help the Aged.
  • MCW programme findings were used in the initial stages of the Department for BISwork on the economic opportunities of an ageing population, one of the New Industry, New Jobs Commitments.
  • The Perkins Review, which focused on people with mental health conditions in the benefits system and those with the most severe conditions at risk of becoming dependent on benefits.
  • The Future Vision coalition, 11 mental health organisation including MIND and Royal College of Psychiatrists, used the findings in their report “A Future Vision of Mental Health.
  • The Development of the national Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance on child mental wellbeing in early years, at home and preschool.