Under the health and safety regulations, employers have an obligation to intervene if an employee becomes physically unwell or is injured. But what about helping those with mental illness? Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, explains why the law needs updating.
If an employee becomes physically unwell or is injured, there is a good chance that someone trained in physical first aid will be on hand to help. But can we say the same of mental health? If someone has a panic attack, or is experiencing suicidal thoughts, would the same support be there for them?
Mental health first aid
At present, first aid provision under the Health and Safety Regulations 1981 doesn’t treat mental and physical health equally, but there has been a groundswell of support to change this legislation to protect mental health in the workplace. Last month, in a letter published in The Times, MPs and industry leaders highlighted the impact of mental ill health on businesses and employees and called for a change in law to ensure first aid needs address our whole health – not just our physical condition.
From both a human and a financial perspective, this change could make a huge difference. Mental health issues cost UK employers around £35bn every year, according to the Centre for Mental Health. This is made up of a cost of £21.2bn in reduced productivity, £10.6bn in sickness absence and £3.1bn in staff turnover. The Stevenson/Farmer review also highlighted that around 300,000 people with long-term mental health issues fall out of work every year.
Neglecting basic mental health support is therefore damaging both human and economic potential. But by bringing health and safety standards up to speed, we can help to create healthier, happier, more supportive workplaces where every individual can thrive. We can build stronger businesses that see improved employee engagement, reduced sickness absence and better retention rates. And in the process, we can nurture a stronger, more inclusive economy where mental health is valued and prioritised.
Call for change
The call for a change to the law began in October 2016 when my organisation, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, worked with Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb to table an early day motion on World Mental Health Day. This called on the Government to amend health and safety legislation to ensure first aid covers both physical and mental health. In May 2017 the current Government committed in its election manifesto to amend these regulations – a hugely encouraging step.
With the wheels in motion at a political level, for a meaningful change to happen everyone must be included in the conversation. To this end, Where’s Your Head At? – a national campaign led by inspirational mental health campaigner Natasha Devon MBE, alongside Bauer Media and MHFA England – is gaining momentum. Launched during Mental Health Awareness Week last month, in three weeks the campaign’s petition has gained more than 65,000 signatures and attracted support from employers including Ford, WH Smith, Bupa, Mace and Hogan Lovells.
There’s no doubt that there’s an appetite for change, but for many employers the first question will be: “What does this mean for my business?”. As with physical first aid, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for every workplace. For instance, smaller employers are not necessarily required to have physical first aiders on site, but they are required to make some provision around first aid. A carefully crafted approach to mental health first aid is therefore needed to meet the needs of different organisations.
To look at the implications for businesses, consider the solutions and ensure that change in law is backed up by an approach that is fit for purpose, an “expert reference group” will be set up to represent different sectors and stakeholders. It will be key for the mental health awareness sector, together with employers and Government, to work collaboratively to find solutions for everyone – from start-up businesses to global corporations.
Neglecting basic mental health support is therefore damaging both human and economic potential. But by bringing health and safety standards up to speed, we can help to create healthier, happier, more supportive workplaces where every individual can thrive.”
Laying the groundwork for this change is vital. As dictated by law, employers must have a reasonable awareness of physical health and risks in the workplace, but the same can’t be said for mental health. This means there’s work to do to ensure that basic awareness is there.
Without first laying that foundation and promoting meaningful cultural change, we risk making this a tick-box exercise. With the right approach, however, bringing this outdated legislation up to speed will make a real difference to the millions of working-age people who experience mental health issues every year.
Equality in first aid provision would mean someone in every workplace would have a basic understanding of mental ill health and will be able to offer support on a first aid basis, helping those in need at the earliest possible opportunity. We take for granted the importance of catching and treating physical illness or injury as early as possible – however serious the issue, the sooner we recognise there’s a problem, the sooner we’re able to get on a path to recovery.
For laws to be effective, they need to reflect the society they’re designed to support, but health and safety legislation has lagged behind for decades. In 2018, our society needs a first aid box which reflects the fact that there is no health without mental health, so let’s work together and change the law.