Here’s how one mental health scheme helped people rebuild their confidence – and keep their jobs

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is a supporter of social prescribing. But does it work? Kay Silversides explores how one such scheme has been a major success

Back in 2017, the Stevenson Farmer review revealed the scale of the mental health at work problem in the UK.

One in six British workers are affected by mental health problems like anxiety, depression and stress every year – and 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year.

This is very significant for all those affected. They have to rebuild their lives and seek ‘good work’ – the sort of role that would not lead to a recurrence of their ill health.

For older workers, aged 50 and above, the situation is exacerbated by a general increased difficulty in finding employment. For many, a period of mental health related work absence can lead to leaving the labour market altogether.

Social prescribing

We have recently been involved in an evaluation of a social prescribing pilot which aimed to support people aged 50-plus who were struggling with their mental health at work or were already off work on a fit note.

People seeing their GPs to discuss their fit note or low level mental health issues were referred to an adviser, based at the GP surgery. The adviser would then work with them using a holistic coaching approach to help them to return to work, stay at work with adjustments, support discussions with their employer, or in some cases, help them to plan a positive exit from their job.

GPs struggle to find the time to help in 10-minute appointments. Photograph: Free-Photos / Pixabay

The project significantly exceeded its original referral targets – revealing a very real demand for this type of approach. It also succeeded in meeting its aims – 70% of those supported were still employed at the end of the pilot.

The elements of success

So what was it about this approach that worked? We identified five key elements to success:

  1. Proximity. Having a presence in the GP surgery was an advantage – people were in the right mind-set to seek support and there was no opportunity to put this off. As a result, virtually all referrals took up the support.
  2. Time. As much as they might want to help, GPs are limited to appointments of ten minutes. The adviser offered one hour appointments over a number of weeks. People valued the time to talk and this was therapeutic in itself.
  3. Independence. Speaking to someone outside of work and family was helpful in enabling people to gain a fresh perspective on their circumstances.
  4. The focus on strengths. Helping people to see and use their own assets was an integral part of the process. For many, building up lost self-confidence was the first step towards a solution.
  5. Flexibility. The support provided was not ‘off the shelf’ but a bespoke plan co-developed in response to each individual’s situation.

Finally, as one participant said:

“It has been tough but I have gradually regained self-confidence… [The project] has enabled me to steady the ship… and stop me giving it up altogether.”

Kay Silversides is a research manager at Qa Research. You can contact her on or 01904 632 039