Laura Conway: Mental health first aid in the workplace from an employment law perspective

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Menatl health first aid in the workplace

Leading employment lawyer Laura Conway at Wedlake Bell LLP discusses how businesses can provide better support for mental health in the workplace and advises on effective mental health policies they can introduce

On 18 November 2018, a letter from Mental Health First Aid was sent to the Prime Minister to request that the Government prioritise its manifesto pledge to make it mandatory for workplaces to have trained mental health first aiders, as well as physical first aiders. The letter was signed on behalf of a number of well-known businesses such as Bupa, WHSmith, and PwC and referenced a petition on the issue that had received over 200,000 signatures.

So why is this felt to be necessary? There has been a lot of publicity on the impact of mental ill health in the workplace of late, and for good reason. The recent announcement from the Health and Safety Executive that, for the first time ever, work-related stress, anxiety and depression, together, now account for more than half of all working days lost due to ill health, illustrates the importance of the issue. As the letter makes clear, “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”. Therefore, there is a real incentive for businesses to tackle the issue, by ensuring that the workplace and working practices do not exacerbate the problem and by providing appropriate support to try and minimise its harmful impact, both on the individual and the business.

What is a mental health first aider?

It is currently compulsory for all businesses to ensure that they have “adequate and appropriate” first aid equipment, facilities, and a number of qualified first aiders in the workplace. Physical first aiders are trained to respond to medical incidents and emergencies in the workplace. So what is required of a mental health first aider? Well, essentially the same thing. Mental health first aiders are trained to identify and support people experiencing mental health issues, including how to deal with people having suicidal thoughts. Requiring businesses to have dedicated mental health first aiders will give a clear access point for employees to seek help, and will send a message to the workforce that mental health is a priority. A number of businesses already have designated mental health first aiders (I completed the training earlier this year).

The workplace first aider training should look at the full range of mental health conditions and how they can manifest themselves in the workplace, for example, anxiety disorders. Many will recognise the better known symptoms of anxiety, such as excessive worry and the heightened need for reassurance, palpitations and shortness of breath; but a first aider will also be educated on some of the lesser known symptoms, such as the mind “going blank”, decreased concentration and difficulty in making decisions. A first aider will be trained on how to approach, listen to and support those who are suffering. There are also physical symptoms of which management should be aware and physical first aiders should link up with those responsible for mental health.

Employers already have to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work, pursuant to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Further, ACAS guidance issued at the end of last year set out recommendations for employers to promote positive mental health in the workplace by tackling the causes of mental ill health, creating a culture where staff can talk about their mental health, and by supporting staff who are experiencing mental ill health. There is no sanction for failing to comply with this guidance at the moment, although it is likely to be taken into account by employment tribunals, which is why making mental health first aiders mandatory could have a real impact.

For these reasons, businesses should already be focussing on supporting those with mental health conditions in the workplace – the correct support can only be provided if there are people within the organisation who can assist those affected. A mandatory requirement to have trained mental health first aiders will compel the issue into much greater prominence. Employers will have to carry out a risk assessment to see how many first aiders would be “adequate and appropriate” – there may need to be more in high stress environments. Many businesses are already carrying out workplace surveys to this end to assess the mental health of its workforce.

What else can businesses do?

Best practice would be for businesses to go further than just appointing mental health first aiders and to comply with the ACAS guidance. A focus should be on training management as a whole to ensure that they have a better understanding of how mental health conditions can manifest themselves in the workplace and how to support those experiencing problems. Policies should be put in place in consultation with employees so as to maximise the workforce’s engagement and reduce the stigma attached to mental ill health. Employers can also run wellness events, and introduce “mental health champions”, who may be the designated first aiders.

Many employers will already have some support mechanisms in place and should consider how to make more of these. For example, HR teams may want to find out more about the services offered by Employee Assistance Programmes and advertise the mental health services that are available through any private healthcare provider. A big part of being a mental health first aider is the ability to encourage a colleague to seek professional help and other support. Having support services available will make their job easier and the role more effective. If any change in legislation refers to having “adequate and appropriate” equipment and facilities, as with physical first aid, then employers will need to have a full action plan in place.

There needs to be greater awareness of how mental health conditions can manifest themselves and of how to respond. Mandatory mental health first aiders can be one way to achieve this, but they will need the support of the organisations in which they work in order to have a real impact.

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About Laura Conway

Laura is a Senior Associate in the Employment team at leading law firm Wedlake Bell, supporting her clients with a range of complex HR issues, including how to navigate tricky issues related to stress at work. Laura has considerable experience in dealing with contentious matters and her practice in this area focuses on complex discrimination claims as well as competition and confidentiality issues. Laura regularly advises on complex TUPE matters. Laura read law at the University of Leicester and following this trained at Wedlake Bell, qualifying into the Employment team in September 2010. Laura is a member of the ELA and regularly holds training sessions and seminars for her clients.

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