Dozens of employers and public figures published an open letter to Theresa May on 18 November, urging the government to prioritise its manifesto commitment to amend Health and Safety regulations “so that workplaces are required to make provision for mental as well as physical first aid”. 
The signatories – including long-time mental health campaigner Alastair Campbell, Business in the Community CEO Amanda Mackenzie and The City UK chief Miles Celic – noted that the pledge to explicitly include mental health in the UK’s First Aid regulations “is supported by both employers and by the wider public”.
Indeed, since May 2018 more than 200,000 people have signed a change.org petition set up by Bauer Media (whose CEO Paul Keenan helped to coordinate the open letter) calling upon the government to make mental health first aid mandatory in all workplaces.
The letter explains: “There are both economic and human reasons for protecting mental health in the workplace and, combined, these reasons present a powerful case for updating the law. Each year, workplace mental health issues cost the UK economy almost £35 billion, with 15.4 million working days lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. But the cost is not just financial – because left untreated, mental ill health impacts a person’s relationships with friends and family and ultimately their quality of life.”
It adds: “As [employers] we have a duty of care to our staff and while some employers are at the forefront of change, equalising their number of mental health first aiders with physical first aiders, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Cost cannot be a reason for objections because in the long run it is inevitable that making mental health first aid in the workplace mandatory will save money. Success will ensure employees across the country can access a trained staff member to receive initial support and guidance if they are dealing with a mental health issue at work. Success will ensure every employee has the right to a mentally healthy environment. Success will mean we can finally break the stigma of mental health in the workplace.”
It adds: “Requiring employers to implement some basic steps to protect an employee’s mental health would reduce these impacts.”
So, what should those basic steps be? How can leaders go about piecing together a mental health first aid programme – and which criteria should they use for selecting or appointing a dedicated mental health first-aider?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We should, of course, be bringing mental health under the same umbrella as physical health, and ensuring that we have a holistic approach to both. That’s certainly true of our outlook at the Institute – we view the two elements as very much as parts of the same initiative.
She explains: “First aid is a series of steps designed to address cases where there has been some sort of momentary trauma, and immediate attention is required. But the primary objective of any, effective health and safety policy should be to eliminate any factors that may necessitate first aid. So, while you may have access to colleagues who have been trained to patch up injuries, the whole focus of the policy must be directed towards prevention. In my view, exactly the same ethos should be applied to mental health.”
Cooper notes: “Putting the focus on first aid in terms of a rapid response to trauma arguably detracts from what leaders can do to contain the amount of stress that workers are under – just as in the field of physical health, responsible bosses will arrange the layout, fittings and equipment in their premises to prevent the occurrence of accidents. In mental health, meanwhile, there is a need to look out for early-warning signs indicating that people are struggling to cope.”
She points out: “As mental health is holistic, employees’ problems outside the workplace will undoubtedly affect their sense of wellness within it. People bring their whole selves to work, so there is absolutely potential for those external issues – in combination with work pressures – to trigger crises. With that in mind, we would urge leaders to see mental health not so much as a matter for named specialists in the workplace, but something that should be acknowledged through a more general level of awareness.
“We would encourage everyone to attend relevant training courses, and ensure that organisations have confidential Time to Talk forums that provide staff with the opportunity to discuss their problems and challenges before they reach crisis point. Leaders must also ensure that – whatever shape they take – those forums do not judge, that they listen attentively, and that they are able to efficiently refer staff to professional services should they require more detailed and specialist help.”
Cooper adds: “I would rather the focus was not on first aid fixing a crisis, but on preventing the crisis from occurring; not on making mental health the remit of a specialist few – but on encouraging people to talk about mental health problems in the way that we tend to be so much more inclined to discuss physical ones.”
For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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