Former board members of an organisation that offers mental health first aid training have said that making it a legal requirement would compound concerns about how the responsibilities affect those carrying out the role.
Last month Conservative MP Dean Russell presented a private members bill under parliament’s Ten Minute Rule, which proposed the introduction of a legal requirement for mental health first aid training in workplaces.
It received a mixed response from employers and workplace mental health specialists, some of whom felt mental health first aid (MHFA) placed too much onus on employees to be responsible for others.
Mental health first aid
Now, three ex-board members of Mental Health First Aid England have urged Russell to amend his bill, as they feel the current proposals “could create unintended and negative consequences”. They say it does not recognise that MHFA “is only one piece of the jigsaw when effectively managing and supporting mental health in the workplace”.
Their letter, shared on LinkedIn by ex-MHFA England board member Amy McKeown, says: “Whilst useful as a literacy training tool, there has always been controversy about what the role of a [MHFA] should be, and the appropriateness, governance, and boundaries of these roles”.
MHFAs themselves are often put in a vulnerable position. “These are people who after doing a short awareness training are then expected to offer peer support to others… outside of formal organisational processes and systems,” they note.
The letter says that making MHFA training a legal requirement without further prevention or support mechanisms could create problems including:
- organisations using it as a ‘tick box’ exercise, by training only a few people rather than looking at how to support workplace mental health in its entirety
- confidentiality issues
- disclosed mental illness “falling through the gaps” of informal peer support systems
- a lack of further support not always being available, for MHFAs and those they support.
It adds that MHFA is not always suitable for an organisation, depending on its culture, industry or if it has hybrid working arrangements in place.
The letter urges the MP to amend his bill to “include a more systemic approach which includes treating mental health and psychosocial factors equally to physical factors in risk assessment, training, rehabilitation, and suicide plans”.
Stronger enforcement of the HSE’s stress management standards has also been recommended, with the letter suggesting that companies with more than five employees should face repercussions if they do not have a credible approach to preventing work-related mental health issues.
A date for the second reading of the First-Aid (Mental Health) Bill has not yet been scheduled.
Suzy Blade, head of HR at law firm Setfords, suggested that legislation alone is not the answer to addressing mental health risks at work.
She said: “Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and that should encompass mental health first aid training and support as a fundamental requirement. We welcome the further discussion at a national level on the subject of mental health, but employers generally need to accept that responsibility now rather than waiting for legal enforcement.”
Blade said the firm’s experience with MHFA has been largely a positive one, with the initiative “being one part of a much wider programme of wellbeing activities and resources”.