Healthy stance on mental wellbeing

Employers urged to look at first aid training and policy

Harriet Gray, employment associate in the People, Reward and Mobility team at Dentons UK
Harriet Gray is an employment associate and works in the People, Reward and Mobility team at Dentons UK and Middle East LLP, based in Scotland.

MENTAL health is an issue that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years and its importance is now widely recognised, both in people’s personal and professional lives.

It is estimated that around one in six people suffer from a mental health condition and that those conditions are responsible for a significant fraction of all employee absences across the UK.

A private members’ bill, which aims to tackle the issue of mental health in the workplace, was recently introduced in Westminster. The bill seeks to make it a legal requirement for businesses to offer mental health first aid training. 

Why do anything?

A 2014 survey by NatCen Social Research, with Leicester University, suggests one in six adults may suffer from a common mental health condition.

Referrals to the NHS’s Talking Therapies grew by 28% in 2021/22, compared with the previous year. In 2021/22, there were 3.25million people in contact with NHS secondary mental health services. 

Poor mental health can have a significant impact on people’s lives and this, in turn, can impact their effectiveness and ability to perform at work.

Some 9.8% of all sickness absence days in 2021 were due to poor mental health, and around 15% of people at work have exhibited symptoms of mental health conditions. Consequently, improving employers’ approach to mental health would help employees become healthier, happier and, in turn, more productive.

What is the response?

Employers already have a general duty of care towards their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (which encompasses both physical and mental health).

But, as it stands, they are only legally required to provide physical first aid training. However, a new bill has been introduced to try to address this issue. The First-Aid (Mental Health) Bill, sponsored by MP Dean Russell, is currently going through Westminster.

It seeks “to make mental health first aid part of first aid training requirements” and “to create parity between mental health and physical health first aid in the workplace”. This would introduce a new legal obligation on employers to provide mental health first aid training in addition to physical first aid training.

Will the bill go through?

This remains to be seen. Russell introduced a similar proposal in 2021 that was supported by a petition boasting 200,000 signatories but the bill failed to progress and was never published.

The bill has been formally reintroduced but is yet to be debated in parliament. That is due to happen on 24 November 2023 and the bill is not likely to be passed until late 2024 at the earliest.

If the bill passes, what obligations might employers have?

As no draft of the bill has been published, the exact implications for employers are not yet clear. However, if the bill passes, the training requirement would likely result in additional costs for employers.

While the bill is progressing through parliament, there are steps employers may want to consider to proactively support their employees’ mental health such as:

•assessing their workplace’s current approach to mental health and first aid, and the policies in place to support this;

•if none exist, considering whether such policies should be implemented;

•assessing the support currently offered;

•determining the number of mental health first aiders required for their organisation, advertising the role and inviting employees to take part in a formal application process; 

•assessing what processes may need to be put in place for employees to access mental health first aid and promoting the availability of such services.

Ultimately, implementing supporting employees’ mental health can help lead to long-term, positive economic impacts for employers by reducing the number of sick days lost to mental ill-health. In extreme situations, this may even save lives.

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