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What next for mental health first aid legislation?

23rd January, 2019

Claire Farrow

It was fascinating to see mental health first aid legislation being debated in Parliament. If you weren’t able to be in London on 17th January, you can catch up here. The motion seeks to change the 1974 Health & Safety Act via secondary legislation so that an employer’s responsibility explicitly covers the mental health as well as the physical health of their employees. It’s suggested that this small change to the law would constitute a step towards establishing real equality between physical and mental health.

For those who can’t spare the time to watch the full debate, some of the quotes that caught my attention are:

“It’s good that members can come together and discuss topics of national importance in a spirit of fraternity”

“Mental ill-health is having a significant impact on millions of workers across the country and is costing the economy billions of pounds”

“Under existing law, employers are under duties to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce”

“Businesses that have been proactive are reaping the rewards”

“It’s vital that we raise awareness through mental health first aid, but also have to have a fundamental focus on the prevention of mental ill-health in the workplace”.

“This is too important to be left to the goodwill of employers – legislation is required”

“Government must demonstrate it takes this seriously and act now”

“The fact that parity of esteem is written into legislation is not the end – it is just the start”

“Mandatory regulation will be necessary if every organisation is to give mental health the attention it deserves…Further work is needed, particularly with SMEs, to establish the right framework for that regulation. Extensive consultation will be required and progress will need to be made in recognising the impact on employers and employees. The Government must first set out a firm timetable during which it will consider the proposals from experts, employers and employees and then consult on proposals for regulation to deliver parity of esteem as called for by the Health and Social Act 2012 and implied by the Stevenson Farmer “Thriving at Work” report.”

“The Government’s view is that the best approach is to engage with employers to adopt a comprehensive approach based on the Thriving at Work mental health standards”.

At the end of the debate the “Ayes” had it. So what does that mean now?

What next?

Natasha Devon MBE, pictured above, is the writer and activist who launched the Where’s Your Head At campaign. This campaign aims to change the law around mental health first aid to protect the mental health of British Workers. It was the driving force behind bringing this issue to Parliament. I asked Natasha to share her thoughts on the debate and the next steps:

Q1: Were you happy with the outcome of the parliamentary debate on a motion on mental health first aid in the workplace?

The debate on Thursday is what’s called a ‘Back Bench Business Debate’ and it was asking MPs to agree to discuss the possibility of law change further. Those who attended unanimously voted for the motion, which is very encouraging and a victory for the campaign – But there’s still a long road of lobbying ahead.

Q2: What steps would you like to see Government taking with this agenda moving forward?

We need to get a parliamentary vote on the proposed law change. We will be working closely with Luciana Berger, Norman Lamb and Johnny Mercer, who were the MPs who arranged the debate, to understand what steps we need to take to make that happen.

In the meantime, I’d like to government to understand that, whilst mandatory mental health first aid won’t magically solve all mental health issues, it will make a huge and dramatic difference to millions of employees throughout the UK.

Q3: What actions would you like to see employers taking with this agenda moving forward?

Time taken off for mental health issues represents the single biggest cost to UK businesses. It’s around £39 billion each year, working out at £1,600 per employee – and that’s just what we know about. A study conducted by Bauer Media, co-founders of the campaign, found up to 50% of employees who take time off for their mental health tell their boss it’s for a different reason – Meaning the true cost is hidden.

Where’s Your Head At has been backed by the CEOs of some of the UK’s largest companies – including WH Smith, Thames Water & Ford – but I’d like to see smaller businesses (for whom the initial cost of training mental health first aiders is a more significant expense) recognising the value this investment can bring and speaking about that publicly.

Q4: What's next for the Where's Your Head at Campaign?

I’m getting ready to lobby my socks off! I don’t think anyone who truly understands the MHFA course and its contents, the impact it has on work places and the right we have to expect this law change under the government’s ‘parity of esteem’ promises could ever argue against it. So, I have to make sure as many people as possible understand what we’re asking for and also that it’s just the first step in a much larger mental health revolution.

Another perspective

In the true spirit of debate, it seems only fair to include a balancing perspective. Francesca Rogers is the creator of Northstar Therapies, providing a variety of wellness and mental-health packages designed to support Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs), HR and organisations seeking to improve the wellbeing of employees. Rogers is a psychotherapist, psychotherapeutic supervisor, accredited coach and an assessor.

Rogers believes MHFAs are a first positive and practical step for organisations to bring the mental-health crisis into focus. She suggests however that to optimise the initiative, mental-health professionals should also be engaged to safeguard MHFAs and employees, while helping to relieve the pressure on HR.

Rogers can see that there are a number of progressive companies, such as advertising agency McCann London for instance, that are thinking about the right structure in addition to MHFA.

Luciana Berger MP, who spoke in support of the motion opening the parliamentary debate, also reminded us that “this specific initiative is not seeking to substitute mental health professionals for mental health first aiders”. This point was expanded and reiterated across the session.

In conclusion

Even though the Government did not commit to advancing legislation, I was heartened to see support for the motion from all sides at the parliamentary debate. The cross-party nature of the initiative suggests mental health in the workplace will stay relevant with Government, regardless of which party is in power and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Claire Farrow

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Mad World News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times.

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