Fifty employers have backed an open letter to the prime minister calling for the Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations to be amended to make “mental health first aid” a legal requirement with the same statutory footing in workplaces as first aid.
The letter has been signed by dozens of representatives of UK employers, including Universities UK, PwC, Royal Mail, WH Smith, Ford and Thames Water.
But safety organisations and unions have responded cautiously, stressing that there is no “magic bullet” to improving mental health in the workplace, and that mental health first aid provision cannot be a stand-alone response.
The letter was co-ordinated by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, the charity that accredits other training organisations to deliver mental health first aid training, and Bauer Media, a magazine and radio business.
MHFA England and Bauer Media have been running a campaign called “Where’s your head at” that has been specifically targeting the legislation change.
The letter urges the prime minister to deliver on an election manifesto pledge to “amend the health and safety regulations, so that workplaces are required to make provision for mental as well as physical first aid” and to “make mental health first aid mandatory in all workplaces”.
“Mental health, like physical health, requires and deserves a comprehensive approach developed by employers working in partnership with their workforces” Lawrence Waterman, chair of the British Safety Council
The 2017 Conservative Party manifesto says: “We will amend health and safety regulations so that employers provide appropriate first aid training and needs assessment for mental health, as they currently do for risks to physical health”.
In response to the letter, the British Safety Council, IOSH, the TUC and the GMB union all stressed to Health and Safety at Work that MHFA has a place in workplaces, but should only be viewed as one strand in wider stress prevention and support strategies.
However, the response from IOSH also predicted that the HSE would shortly be updating its guidance to the First Aid Regulations in order to factor in advice to employers on mental health.
Lawrence Waterman, chair of the British Safety Council (BSC), said: “Mental health in the workplace is a major issue but not one that can be resolved with a single action, a magic bullet.”
Referring to the BSC as a founding partner of the Mates in Mind programme, he added: “We know from our members and supporters that mental health first aiders make a tremendous contribution where employers are also tackling the causes of work-related stress and have a positive approach to staff welfare and support.
“Mental health, like physical health, requires and deserves a comprehensive approach developed by employers working in partnership with their workforces.”
At the GMB union, national health, safety and environment director Dan Shears said: “We support the provision of MHFA as part of a comprehensive approach to managing occupational mental health, but not as a stand-alone initiative.
“MHFA has a role, but stress risk assessments, mental health policies, and most importantly preventive approaches must be in place before any MHFA programme is created.
He continued: “The open letter talks of giving parity between physical and mental health first aid, but ultimately the two roles are very different. The classic first aid provides initial triage and support until more qualified and competent practitioners can take over.
“This is all too often not the case with MHFA, due to the acute shortage of mental health care and provision through the NHS and in the community.
“In the experience of our members, MHFA can be very effective when it forms part of this overall approach, but it is often seen as the endpoint, meaning that action has been taken, so wider initiatives to tackle root causes are not needed.”
At IOSH, Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs, said: “IOSH encourages an intelligent, preventative approach to managing psychosocial risks in workplaces, supported by appropriate responses to mental ill-health and its impacts.
“Well-designed occupational safety and health management systems will take account of work-related mental health issues, focusing on prevention. Organisations need to support those with mental health conditions at work and tackle discrimination and stigma. Where there is mental ill-health at work, it’s important that it’s competently managed and also that there are personalised return-to-work plans for workers following absence.
“We understand that the HSE will shortly be updating its first-aid guidance in respect to mental health to provide more clarity for employers.
“This Friday, IOSH will host a meeting of representatives from business, professional bodies and trades unions to discuss how to improve evaluation of the effectiveness of workplace mental health policies and practices.
“This will include new findings from our feasibility research into Mental Health First Aid in the workplace by researchers from the University of Nottingham.”
The letter also comes three months after the publication of a literature review by the HSE, which found little research evidence to underpin claims on the effectiveness of mental health first aid in workplace settings.