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Wages and wellbeing: the link between low pay and poor mental health

For Mental Health Awareness Week, Maisie Caro from the Living Wage Foundation reflects on the connection between low pay and mental ill health.

Conversations around mental health often focus on the individuals at the centre. But mental ill health does not occur in a vacuum – it’s people on the lowest incomes who are at the highest risk of experiencing anxiety and depression. With national awareness of the issue heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, we must use this opportunity to address the root causes of mental ill health. We must start paying workers a real Living Wage.

The Mental Health Foundation – creator of Mental Health Awareness Week and an accredited Living Wage Employer – puts tackling the causes of mental ill health at the heart of its approach. With one in six adults in the UK meeting the criteria for a mental health problem each week, the Mental Health Foundation says that the scale of the problem in our society underlines that mental ill health is more than just an individual problem. Instead, they say, we need to turn our attention to the societal causes that are leading to poor mental health outcomes in the first place.

The link between low pay and poor mental wellbeing was made strikingly clearly in the Living Wage Foundation’s Life on Low Pay report, which was published earlier this year. The report found that 46% of people working full-time but being paid less than the real Living Wage felt their pay negatively affected their levels of anxiety. Good relationships – key to reducing the risk of mental ill health – were another casualty, with 34% of respondents telling us that their low pay damages relationships with family and friends.

As the Mental Health Foundation highlighted in its May 2020 report ‘The COVID-19 pandemic, financial inequality and mental health’, preventing mental ill health means promoting good quality employment that pays a Living Wage. For most people, work is one of the defining experiences of adult life, taking up a huge proportion of waking hours, providing crucial social networks and even a sense of identity. For many, it finances the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes we sleep in. It should therefore be no surprise that when work doesn’t pay a real Living Wage – as it doesn’t for over 5 million workers in the UK today – people suffer.

Just as the risk of experiencing mental ill health is disproportionately high for low-paid workers, the risks of experiencing both mental ill health and low pay are disproportionately faced by racialised communities. Not only are Black workers around 50% more likely to earn below the Living Wage than white workers, Black men are more than ten times more likely than white men to suffer from a psychotic disorder while Black women are the largest sufferers of anxiety and depression.

Lived experience has shown us that a Living Wage is good for wellbeing. I recently spoke to Emma, a care worker contracted by Living Wage Employer Kingston Council, who told me about the difference that being paid the real Living Wage made to her mental health. “I struggled before. My mental health wasn’t in a good place. I’m a lot more stable now my financial situation is better. I can spend more time with my kids – two teenage boys and an eleven year old girl. We all went on holiday together last summer, down to Cornwall. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.”

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue of mental health to the fore. Let’s harness this national attention to make real change and tackle mental ill health from the root. Let’s start by eradicating low pay from our society and making sure workers are paid a real Living Wage.

Help tackle mental ill health from its roots and become a Living Wage Employer today.

12th May 2021
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