If someone is injured or becomes ill at work, the chances are someone trained in physical first aid will be on hand to help. They’ll know what steps to take if someone has broken a bone or has burnt themselves. Depending on the depth of their training they’ll also be skilled in how to respond to a suspected heart attack, or will be able to put an unconscious person in the recovery position until professional help arrives. 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?
At present, first aid provision under the Health and Safety Regulations 1981 doesn’t treat mental and physical health equally. Last week, however, MPs and industry leaders wrote to Sarah Newton MP, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, calling for this to change.
The call for a change to the law began in October 2016, when my organisation, Mental Health First Aid England, worked with Norman Lamb MP 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 obligations cover both physical and mental health.
In May 2017 our current Government then committed in its election manifesto to amend these regulations to include ‘appropriate first aid training and needs assessment for mental health, as they currently do for risks to physical health’ – a hugely encouraging step, signalling an intended change to the law that I believe will bring parity of esteem to mental health in the workplace.
But for meaningful change to happen there needs to be momentum and for this reason, in December 2017, I was pleased to be able to pledge our support for a national campaign, ‘Where’s Your Head At?’, designed to rally public and employer support around the concept of mental health first aid in the workplace.
The campaign, led by the inspirational mental health campaigner, Natasha Devon MBE, and created and delivered by Bauer Media Group, is now in full force. So far the ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ petition has amassed over 60,000 signatures and the campaign has attracted support from not only the general public, but also employers from across many sectors, including the likes of Ford, WHSmith, Bupa, Mace and Hogan Lovells. It has also been publicly backed by others in the mental health sector, including the CEOs for both the Samaritans and the Centre for Mental Health.
The appetite for change is perhaps driven by the sheer scale of the issue. The Stevenson / Farmer review found that 300,000 people with long term mental health issues lose their jobs each year and the most recent Mental Health at Work Report from Business in the Community showed that up to 1.2 million people face dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion for disclosing a mental health issues at work. With an estimated cost to employers of £35 billion every year, neglecting basic mental health support in the workplace is damaging both human and economic potential.
Following through on this change will not be without its challenges. As with physical first aid, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for every workplace. Depending on the type of organisation, the level of provision could range from eLearning courses to full mental health first aider training. What’s certain is that the whole mental health sector, together with employers and government, will have to work collaboratively to find solutions for everyone - from the 10-person start up, to the global corporation.
Laying the groundwork for this change is also key. All employers have a good awareness of physical health and risks in the workplace - as dictated by law. The same can’t be said for mental health, so 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, 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. It will create more open, mentally healthier workplaces but crucially it will support those in need to get help at the earliest possible opportunity.
We take for granted the need to catch and treat physical illness 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. This is built into the way we think about our physical health, so it stands to reason that we do the same for our mental health. Changing how we manage first aid provision in the workplace is therefore one important part of moving towards equality in how we deal with mental health and physical health, something all three main political parties have committed to.
For laws to be effective, they need to reflect the society they’re designed to support and it is clear health and safety legislation has lagged behind for decades. The time to act to protect mental health in the workplace is now. There needs to be a first aid box which reflects the concept that there is no health without mental health, so let’s work together and change the law to reflect this.