“Mental health first aid training” sounds all very modern, doesn’t it? I imagine many readers of this blog will be tempted to roll their eyes at the suggestion that anyone could make a living providing such training. You might also assume that it’s a knee jerk (and probably short-lived) reaction from the “considerable” toll lockdown has taken on the nation’s mental health. However, it is big business, with the charity Mind predicting, almost 3 years ago, that 1 million people would receive such training as part of a £15 million campaign by Public Health England (PHE), and numerous providers of the training at the end of a quick Google search.
What is mental health first aid?
Despite the campaign by PHE, ‘mental health first aid’ is probably still a novel concept to many. The St Johns Ambulance, who are just one training provider in the UK, suggest mental health first aid courses are designed to “help raise awareness of mental illness, enabling people to support themselves and others to aid recovery... [and] to reduce stigma through education and increase the provision of care for those who have a mental illness”. It is effectively a first aid course, but for the mind.
Should businesses be providing this training?
The answer to this isn’t straight forward and it will depend on the particular circumstances of your business. As an employer, it is important that you understand that you have certain duties to your employees.
Employer’s duty of care
All employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees; they have a duty to see that reasonable care is taken to provide them with a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment, and a safe system of working. This duty spans back over the past 100 or so years, when the majority of work was physical e.g. factory or farm work. But in today’s modern age, with the majority of the UK workforce sat in front of computers for most of the day, what does this mean? In some ways, this is obvious. You office needs to be safe, with no tripping hazards, electrical safety should be checked and all equipment should be safe and appropriate for your employees’ use.
But what about mental health?
Some pressure on employees (to achieve targets and meet deadlines) is good, but too much without appropriate support can leave to excess stress and, for some people, can cause or contribute to mental health problems, as well as causing other issues for employers such as poor performance, poor relationships between staff, and high levels of absence.
In a study undertaken by the HSE in 2019, the total number of cases of work related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2018/19 was 602,000, and it is estimated that 12.8 million works days in that year alone were lost due to stress or mental health-related absences – accounting for 54% of all work-related absence. It is clear that mental health is one of the biggest issues for employers, and their duty of care extends to taking care of employees’ mental – as well as physical – health, including avoiding excess stress, and identifying and managing problems. It is also important to remember that mental health problems, including stress, can in some cases amount to a disability and to bear in mind the employer’s obligations under the Equality Act 2010.
A failure to put in place appropriate controls and systems of work can be a breach of the employer’s duty of care to the employee and (situation depending) can give rise to claims for personal injury, unfair or constructive dismissal, breach of contract, discrimination, and harassment. The specific defence to each claim may differ slightly, but in general it is incumbent on the employer to show that they took reasonable steps to appropriately identify risks and put in place safe systems of work to minimise them.
The role of first aid training
Mental health first aiders in the work place undertake the role of identifying symptoms of common mental health problems and helping to guide the employee to the appropriate care. It is one of the steps that an employer can take to identify, reduce, and tackle problems in accordance with their duties. Many business owners will readily admit that they don’t understand mental health, and in those circumstances it can be helpful to ‘bring in the professionals’ – particularly in businesses where a wider-spread problem has already been identified.
That’s not to say, however, that mental health first aiders are essential to every business, and that if you don’t have them then you have not complied with your duties. Employer’s duties are always relative to the type, size, and resources of their business and it is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. There are plenty of other steps which employers can take, including putting in place appropriate wellbeing and mental health policies, making appropriate use of the appraisal system as an opportunity for employees to raise issues that they are experiencing, putting in place a mental health awareness campaign within your business, providing internal training to managers on spotting the signs of common mental health issues (without the need to have formal mental health first aiders), and giving employees access to external resources such as with a cash health plan. Moreover, many mental health problems and excess stress at work originate from a lack of support, poor management, bullying, or poor work/life balance. Addressing these issues with proper management, clear procedures and training, and discouraging overworking is often the best first step to ensuring a happy and healthy workforce.
If you have any queries regarding dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, or any other employment related queries, please get in touch with Charlotte Braham in the Employment Department on 01494 893529.