Research finds key workers struggling with money and mental health problems

By agency reporter
September 1, 2020

Key workers are risking their mental and physical health to hold down their jobs, a new report warns. All Clapped Out? by the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce (RSA), an independent charity and think-tank, finds 58 per cent of key workers are having problems balancing work and their mental wellbeing, and 54 per cent worry about catching the virus as part of their job.

The RSA argues the government and employers must prevent the growth of this “economic security trap” — the trade-off workers face between their financial security and their mental and physical health.

To close this, the RSA calls for Statutory Sick Pay to be extended to all employees. Currently those earning less than £118 per week do not qualify. The RSA estimates this would leave 36,000 nurses and 79,000 carers without sick pay, potentially being forced to work with COVID-19 symptoms to meet their basic needs.

A YouGov survey for the RSA of 1,281 key workers — the first to look at both their health and wealth during COVID-19 — finds:

  • Many, especially those in the NHS, have seen their finances hold up relatively well: Some 70 per cent of NHS workers said they had done very or relatively well out of the lockdown, compared to 53 per cent of supermarket workers and 45 per cent of social care workers. But 17 per cent of supermarket workers said they ‘struggled to make ends meet’, compared to 4 per cent of NHS staff, six per cent of school staff, and nine per cent of those working in social care.
  • But some, especially social care and supermarket workers, are vulnerable to a financial shock: 22 per cent of social care workers and 27 per cent of supermarket workers said they would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £100, compared to 16 per cent of school staff and 13 per cent of NHS workers. BME groups and Londoners also would struggle more to afford an unexpected bill of £100, including 24 per cent of London key workers compared to average 16 per cent elsewhere in UK; and 25 per cent of BME groups compared to 16 per cent of white people.
  • Most key workers are feeling the mental health strain: 58 per cent say their work means they have found it more difficult to balance their mental ill-health during the pandemic – including majorities of leavers and remainers; 2019 Tory and Labour voters; and from all types of key workers, in all parts of Great Britain.
  • Serious numbers face physical health risks too: 54 per cent of workers felt at risk of catching Covid-19 while carrying out their job. Although 70 per cent said their employers did well in mitigating the risk, supermarket workers felt least protected, with 25 per cent saying their employer did badly in terms of protection, compared to 18 per cent of school workers. Women also felt most at risk of catching the disease while doing their jobs: 59 per cent compared to 46 per cent of men.

The RSA has called for the UK government to:

  • Expand Statutory Sick Pay eligibility to all employees, especially key workers below the National Insurance threshold of £118, to ensure no-one feels the need to work when seriously unwell. The RSA estimates 36,000 part-time nurses and 79,000 part-time carers earn less than this, and so do not qualify for sick pay.
  • Provide all frontline NHS and social care staff with tailored wellbeing and mental health checks throughout the pandemic, including dedicated trauma support.
  • Introduce a one-off £500 payment for social care workers, with supermarkets encouraged to do the same.

Alan Lockey, head of the RSA future work centre, said: "This bank holiday, we’re reminded of the millions who’ve worked to keep us safe and well-fed during the pandemic. But our survey shows key workers are facing what we call the 'economic security trap': the trade-off between their mental and physical well-being, and their basic financial needs. Closing this gap will be critical to preventing a second wave of Covid-19.

“To really help our Covid heroes, we need to see sick pay for all workers as well as better mental health and trauma support.”

Mubin Haq, chief executive of the Standard Life Foundation, said: “The solidarity and goodwill for key workers that flooded in from homes up and down the country is in danger of ebbing away, with little to show for all of the hard work and effort provided by our essential workers.

"While many key workers' finances have been maintained or improved during the pandemic, this is not the case for all of them, especially those on the lowest wages. They have faced the largest cuts to their pay and are the ones most likely to have drawn on any savings they had.

“The clapping each week was a sign that we wanted to do more, and provide an adequate safety net and just rewards for our key workers. We now need to translate that support into concrete change.”

Bharat Metha, chief executive at Trust for London, said: “Britain’s key workers are the foundation of our society and have been at the heart of the pandemic response. It’s worrying that many key workers are struggling with debt and high housing costs as well as experiencing mental ill-health and risks to their physical health. Key workers should not have to choose between their financial security and their mental and physical health. We need to see better mental health support and improve pay and conditions for key workers.”

* All Clapped Out? is available to download here

* Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts https://www.thersa.org/

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