An MP has proposed that employers should be legally required to offer mental health first aid training, but employers and workplace wellbeing experts are sceptical about its effectiveness.
Conservative MP Dean Russell presented his proposed new law to parliament yesterday (25 January), arguing that the move will mean more people will be able to spot the early signs of a mental health crisis at work, potentially saving lives.
“We spend so much time in the workplace, yet we cannot always be ourselves when we are there. It can be hard to show our true face when times are tough because we aim, as always, to be professional. But people do not wear bandages to show where they have anxiety and depression. Many learn to hide their pain in fear of damaging their careers,” he told MPs.
“Mental health first aiders, I must be clear, are not expected to be counsellors or psychologists, but just like physical first aiders, who are not expected to be paramedics or surgeons, this bill will simply mean workers have someone to signpost them to the support and help they need when they need it.”
Mental health first aid
The role (and risks) of mental health first aid
He presented the proposed new law as a Ten Minute Rule Bill; these bills rarely become law, but they do allow MPs to raise awareness of issues. Russell introduced an earlier version of his bill in 2021.
The MP for Watford said making mental health first aid (MHFA) training mandatory for employers is popular among the public, with over 200,000 people having signed a petition organised by the Where’s Your Head At? campaign. Employers would have to fund the training themselves.
Stress, depression and anxiety accounted for half of the work-related ill health cases in 2021/22, according to the Health and Safety Executive. This cost employers an estimated 17 million work days.
Many employers already have trained MHFAs in place to act as the first port of call when an employee shows signs they are struggling. However, concerns about the pressure of this responsibility on mental health first aiders have long been raised, and many feel employers should offer them specific support.
Studies have also shown that MHFA does not necessarily improve the wellbeing of the person with mental health worries. A 2022 report from the Manhattan Institute found no evidence that MHFA helps individuals with mental illness in crisis, while an Australian study found that training improved mental health literacy, but changes in the mental health of the individuals that the trainees were supporting were not detected.
The training is not actually focused on the workplace and is much more general, so I actually think workplace line manager mental health training is the training we should be mandating” – Hannah Meredith, MVF
In 2018, University of Nottingham study found that the training resulted in an increased understanding of mental health issues in the workplace for 91% of participants.
A step in the right direction, but not enough
The message the proposed law is trying to promote has been welcomed by employers and workplace wellbeing and culture experts, but they say MHFA training should not be used in isolation.
Sales technology platform MVF has trained 48 mental health first aiders. Health and wellbeing partner Hannah Meredith said the training is useful, but should be used in conjunction with other mental health initiatives.
She said: “If utilised in the right way, MHFA can be a fantastic support and ‘ear to the ground’ around what types of issues are coming up for your people to inform your overall strategy. I worry that as MFHAs are volunteering their time, it’s also putting too much onus on employees to be responsible for others when the mental health of your people should always be a high priority business issue.
It doesn’t make employees qualified professionals. And it doesn’t address the wider considerations of supporting mental health at work: flexibility, culture, leadership, and the access of qualified support.” – Harry Bliss, Champion Health
“MHFAs are a brilliant first response for those in crisis and a fantastic way to communicate and signpost to your teams. However, the training is not actually focused on the workplace and is much more general, so I actually think workplace line manager mental health training is the training we should be mandating.”
Harry Bliss, CEO and co-founder of workplace wellbeing platform Champion Health said the proposed bill is a step in the right direction, but is not enough to solve the workplace mental health crisis.
He said: “Mental health first aid training is a fantastic introduction to the world of mental health. It provides potentially lifesaving information like how to signpost someone struggling and I’ve met many passionate, helpful professionals with this training. But it doesn’t make employees qualified professionals. And it doesn’t address the wider considerations of supporting mental health at work: flexibility, culture, leadership, and the access of qualified support.
“There is also a danger that this becomes a tick-box exercise for organisations. A ‘done and dusted’ approach to mental health doesn’t work.”
Jill Cotton, career trends expert at Glassdoor, said that establishing MHFA provision demonstrates that companies are open to supporting workers’ mental health needs.
“Protecting the mental health of employees is as important for companies as ensuring provision is in place to support the physical health of workers. The pandemic shone a spotlight on mental health in the workplace and got us talking about a topic previously surrounded by stigmas,” she said.
“Soon after the start of Covid, there was an upward shift in the share of employee reviews on Glassdoor that say their employer offers mental health benefits. This trend steadily increased through 2022 and the growth is happening across all industries.”
Stephen Moore, head of employment at law firm Ashfords reminded employers of their duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees while at work.
“This includes the physical and mental health of employees”, he said.
“Employers also have duties under the Equality Act 2010, including the duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability to ensure that they are not placed at a disadvantage. This duty will apply to various mental health conditions which constitute disabilities under the Equality Act. Depending on the circumstance, a reasonable adjustment could include amending the employee’s working hours or providing support with workload.”
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