Why the government needs to help firms support staff mental health

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Although the health secretary did not give mental health the prominance it deserves in his announcement about the new National Institute for Health Protection, Mental Health First Aid England’s Simon Blake believes government support is vital in tackling post-pandemic mental health issues.

When the government laid out plans for the new National Institute for Health Protection, which is set to replace Public Health England, there was a mixed response from health experts, academics, and organisations across the country.

For many, there are concerns that – at best – the new body could pose a distraction and an unnecessary reorganisation of our public health system that might cause uncertainty. However – at worst – there are major worries that the new organisation will not focus enough on prevention and early intervention when it comes to mental health.

At Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, our concerns are focused on the lack of clarity on whether the important functions carried out in relation to the promotion of public mental health will be maintained. Mental health received no mention in the health secretary’s launch speech. This is particularly worrying given the mental health crisis the country faces, exacerbated by Covid-19 and the additional strain that further local lockdowns and the continued threat or reality of redundancy could place on people.

We need to act with urgency to protect and support the country’s mental health. It is therefore vital that the new Institute retains, and even expands, on the work that was started by PHE to promote better mental health. That’s why we have written to the Prime Minister calling for assurances that the new institute prioritises and protects the mental health of the nation as we navigate the emotional and human impact of this past year.

Adapting to new ways of working

The pressures of the pandemic mean workplaces have rapidly changed beyond recognition and some sectors are reimagining their entire systems whilst many people are adapting to the news they will be working from home for another six months. The Centre for Mental Health already estimates half a million more people will experience a mental health difficulty over the next year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and ONS data shows rates of depression doubling since the outbreak.

With this in mind, the focus on workplace mental health must be a  priority for government but also for employers. Employees at all levels are in need of support – CIPD found 43% of workers said their general mental health has worsened since the coronavirus outbreak, and research from Mind showed that 35% of employees describe their mental health as either “poor” or “very poor”.

What does this mean for businesses?

For businesses, the lack of clarity over the National Institute for Health Protection’s role in supporting the mental health of the nation is troubling. Mind reports that a quarter of people who tried to access mental health support during lockdown were not able to and a third of adults did not try to access support because they did not think that their issue was serious enough. Business productivity is significantly affected if employees cannot, or don’t think they should, seek the mental health support they need and so the provision of services and signposting is key.

Business productivity is significantly affected if employees cannot, or don’t think they should, seek the mental health support they need and so the provision of services and signposting is key.”

Occupational health workers, mental health first aiders, and HR support services need to be able to signpost to vital services that will effectively support employees with their wellbeing. To do this they need the support of a public body that will promote good mental health among the working population and provide the resources and tools to help enable people to achieve it.

PHE was fundamental in creating a sustained commitment to the ground-breaking Every Mind Matters initiative and so much progress has been made in the last decade that needs to be built on. Every Mind Matters was the first ever national public mental health campaign, with investment around prevention and early intervention and a clear employer engagement strategy. It would be a fundamental error for this initiative to be stopped, especially when it has already changed so many attitudes and created healthier habits among many employees accessing self-help resources and actively checking in on their own mental health.

With the vocal support of the young Royals, Freddie Flintoff, Davina McCall and more, Every Mind Matters has also further played a role in helping to tackle the stigma around seeking support for mental health issues. People need the awareness but also the reassurance that their mental health does matter at a national level and this message needs to come from government and trickle down through businesses to employees.

If not now, then when?

With the rise in people experiencing poor mental health since the pandemic, businesses, occupational health workers and HR departments should be offering best practice mental health and wellbeing support to staff. Working remotely during this challenging time can reinforce feelings of isolation and loneliness and changed working circumstances, health worries, and family and financial pressures can trigger poor mental health.

It is a business’s role to protect and safeguard their employees and they need a public health system that is going to be there as a safety net of support for everyone. Organisations must do their bit to support employees and MHFA England’s website provides a number of free and simple tips to support employees with their wellbeing.

It is important to recognise that not everyone will have the same experience of working from home just as people have different experiences in the workplace. A strong focus and commitment by government to the mental health of everyone, underpinned by an understanding of how systemic inequalities, including racism, impact on mental health and wellbeing is required.

A strong focus and commitment by government to the mental health of everyone, underpinned by an understanding of how systemic inequalities, including racism, impact on mental health and wellbeing is required.”

Business in the Community’s Race at Work: Black Voices report shows that the potential benefit to the UK economy from full representation of black, Asian, and mixed ethnicity individuals across the labour market, is estimated to be £24bn annually. Bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing will drive transformation in workplace mental health and performance, and this includes employers taking action to become anti-racist.

Anti-racist workplaces will build cultures where people feel valued and safe. They will enable people to focus on the job in hand and boost productivity through innovation. Economic recovery for the UK will accelerate if it is inclusive, draws on all talents and capability in the workplace. There must be a prioritisation of investment by the new institute in those impacted most by poor mental health to enable this.

To deliver mentally healthy workplaces for all we need an institute at the heart of public health to support businesses with this duty because the potential financial, social and human cost of not having a sustained and expanded focus on mental health and wellbeing is too high. As we wait for a response to our letter to the Prime Minister  we would call on all organisations to review their mental health and wellbeing policies and ensure they are reaching out to check on all of their employees as these challenging times roll on.

Simon Blake

About Simon Blake

Simon Blake is the chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, which offers expert workplace guidance and training to support mental health.
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