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Do we need mental health first aiders at work in 2018?

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Stylist meets the woman campaigning for mental health first aiders to be made compulsory in all workplaces.

After years of sweeping the topic of mental health in the workplace firmly under the proverbial rug, we’re finally opening up the conversation about how to deal with ill mental health in our careers. And there has never been a better time to shine a spotlight on the issue – statistics show that one in four of us will struggle with our mental health every year, while around 15% of people at work show symptoms of an existing mental health condition.

Crucially, some 300,000 people with long-term mental health issues will lose their jobs every year, which is around 50% higher than the figure for those who lose their jobs due to physical health issues.

With this in mind, a solicitor from Leeds has launched a petition calling for mental health ‘first aiders’ to be made compulsory in all UK workplaces, in order to offer crucial support and advice for anyone who feels they need it.

“I want every business in the UK to treat mental health with the same respect as physical health,” Jodie Hill, who started the petition, tells stylist.co.uk. “It’s long overdue - urgent reform is required and this is the starting point to open up that conversation and raise awareness of this huge issue.”

“Urgent reform is required.”

As she says on her change.org petition, which at the time of writing had garnered almost 500 signatures, “The Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 requires employers to satisfy various obligations in respect of equipment and facilities in the workplace, and what should be done if an employee becomes ill or is injured at work…

“The question must be asked as to why employers aren’t generally encouraged to extend the same attitude towards mental health first aid, as they do for physical first aid.”

The concept of a mental health first aider isn’t a new one – it may surprise you to learn that the NHS already has hundreds of them stationed in workplaces across the UK. The first aiders are specially trained to help anyone who is struggling with their mental health at work or experiencing a mental health crisis, and they have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of mental health. They can assist HR with managing long-term sickness or flexible working and act as a point of contact and support for those who may need it. Hill believes this makes them an essential part of any workforce.

“Mental ill health is the biggest reason for sickness absence and by far the largest cost to employers across the UK,” she says. It’s an important point – figures suggest that poor mental health costs the UK economy around £99billion a year, with £42billion of this coming from employers. Similarly, research suggests that addressing the issue of mental health at work can boost our productivity by 12%.

“By training managers to become mental health first aiders the company is taking effective and positive steps to demonstrate an open and caring environment for those who are struggling with their mental ill health… The impact it could make is invaluable.”

“Mental ill health is the biggest reason for sickness absence.”

The idea of increased support for those in the workplace who are struggling with their mental health has also been given the green light by various charities. In a statement for stylist.co.uk, Emma Mamo, who works as the head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, stresses the importance of creating mentally healthy workplaces for all employees to work in.

Workplace wellbeing is increasingly at the top of employers’ agendas, and rightly so. After all, we all have mental health just as we all have physical health, and it fluctuates from good to poor,” she says.

“Employers have a responsibility to promote workplace wellbeing and help prevent poor mental health, and it’s in their interests to take workplace wellbeing seriously. Investing in staff wellbeing saves money in the long run - workplaces that prioritise mental health report having more engaged, productive and loyal employees, who are less likely to need time off sick.”

Mamo adds that the creation of a mentally healthy workplace does not have to mean a big cost or heavy time commitment for an employer.

“Creating mentally healthy workplaces doesn’t necessarily require new training or making large and expensive changes,” she points out. “Offering things like regular catch ups with managers, flexible working hours and the option to work from home, can all make a huge difference. Even those that do have a cost attached – such as subsidised gym membership and Employee Assistance Programmes (confidential 24 hour phone support) – are likely to save money in the long run through increased staff engagement and productivity.”

This is a point that Hill is keen to reiterate. She is due to attend a two day training course, after which she will be qualified as a mental health first aider, offering support in the company she founded, Thrive Law. Despite being a small company with only two employees, having to bear the cost of being out of the office for two days, and the £250-£300 fee for the course, she believes it is a small investment to make in order to guarantee the long-term health of her employees.

“You are qualified for life, unlike a physical first aider which requires refresher training every three years,” she notes. “My campaign is designed to support every employee in every workplace by highlighting a need that has been neglected for far too long.”

“Creating mentally healthy workplaces doesn’t necessarily require new training.”

Like many of us, Hill also has personal experience of managing her mental health while at work. “As a busy professional, I’ve often previously felt under pressure to deliver results, and am mindful that many friends and colleagues have suffered in similar circumstances,” she adds.

As a solicitor, Hill has of course seen the flipside of the issue of mental health in the workplace, especially with regards to how devastating the consequences of not providing adequate support can be.

“I understand the legal requirements to make reasonable adjustments and the impact of doing it wrong,” she says. “There can be expensive claims to defend, a loss of key skilled workers and at worst - workplace suicides.”

With this in mind, it feels imperative that we start thinking about the support we can offer people dealing with ill mental health – and now.

As a spokesman for the charity Sane said: “There is little that is more dispiriting that having to give up employment when your battle with mental illness becomes too much, or being unable to confide in your colleagues that you are struggling. A key factor in recovering from depression, anxiety or other mental health condition can be regaining self-respect and the knowledge that you are playing your part in the world of work.

“We hope ideas such as [mental health first aiders] might enable more people to stay in work, as well as move us towards the government’s own stated ambition to create parity of esteem between mental and physical health.”

Images: Unsplash, Annie Spratt, Verne Ho

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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