There is a common misconception that health and safety is all about slips and trips. It is not. Employers have a legal duty under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This duty extends to work related mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and, it is increasingly advocated that mental health should be treated in the same way as physical health by employers.
First Aid (Mental Health) Bill
The pandemic and the cost of living crisis have had a significant effect on the nation's mental health. With a reported 914,000 workers in the UK suffering from work related stress, anxiety or depression in 2021/22 there have been increased calls for employers to do more to address mental health in the workplace. One such advocate is Conservative MP Dean Russell. In January 2023, he put forward the First-Aid (Mental Health) Bill. If accepted, this Bill would make mental health first aid training (MHFAT) a legal requirement for employers in the UK. Currently, UK employers are required by law to plan for the provision of physical first aid at work, and must carry out a risk assessment of physical first aid requirements. The aim of this Bill is to ensure there is parity between physical and mental health in the workplace. As Mr Russell introduced the Bill through the Ten Minute Rule, he did not provide much detail as to the substantive content of the prospective law, however, he did emphasise that it would be flexible so as to work for all sizes of business.
Effect on employers
If this Bill is passed, the hope is that MHFAT would raise awareness of mental health in the workplace and enhance the ability of the wider workforce to spot early warning signs of mental health issues. As an estimated 17 million days were lost to mental health related absence in 2022, this would be beneficial to employers as there would be less employee absence and increased productivity. On a more personal level, MHFAT would help workers support colleagues by spotting early warning signs, could stop mental health issues escalating into serious problems and, most importantly, could save lives.
On the other hand, despite the likely cost savings of reduced employee absence, there would be the additional cost of MHFAT that employers would have have to absorb, and an additional legal requirement for employers to meet. There are also concerns about the effectiveness of MHFAT, with a 2018 HSE report stating that there is no evidence of MHFAT effectiveness on combating mental health related illness in the workplace. Finally, there are concerns that the introduction of MHFAT may lead to other measures that combat workplace mental health issues, such as occupational health and prevention procedures, being overlooked as employers carry out the 'tick box' exercise of providing MHFAT.
What should employers be doing now?
It is worth noting that Bills introduced via the Ten Minute Rule do not tend to become law. However, mental health should be at the forefront of every employers mind and is important to employer's health and safety compliance. On top of their Working Minds campaign, the HSE has set out a number of 'Core Standards' that employers can put in place to support individuals with mental health conditions in the workplace.
Authors: Shaun Marshall & Amanda Lea