Today, Parliament has the chance to make a real, practical difference to people’s mental health in the workplace.
In a debate, delayed from the end of last year because of the Brexit debacle, along with the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb and the Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, I will call on the government to change the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to include mental health.
The motion would ensure that the legal responsibility for employers to have someone in the workplace trained in physical first aid, would be extended to include mental health.
It is a popular move, backed by the Where’s Your Head At campaign, co-ordinated by the mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, Bauer Media and Mental Health First Aid England, supported by a 200,000-strong campaign petition.
No-one expects the trained workplace first-aider to carry out surgery under the present Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, but they have over 45 years proved their ability to offer support, recognise when more urgent, expert help is needed and improve each organisation and company’s general approach to health at work.
A mental health first aider can do the same. Too often people feel mental health issues are too complicated and shy away from offering help and support for fear of making matters worse. But, again, just like physical health first aid, with the right training, knowledge and skills a work colleague can have the confidence to intervene early if someone is struggling with their mental health and signpost them to the next level of support.
That early intervention, support and signposting can make all the difference – and it can take place in workplaces up and down the country. It already does in a few. The aim is to extend this to all our large workplaces.
Mental health first aid training tends to take place over a handful of days and where it has been tried, the results have been impressive with trainees gaining confidence and workforces benefiting from increased mental health awareness and earlier intervention.
Just like the help that is offered by a physical health first aider, mental health first aid is not designed to replace trained mental health professionals but to offer that immediate source of support and signposting when needed.
We know from the government’s own research that over 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition lose their jobs each year while people having to take time off work with mental health problems suffer enormously and cost the UK economy £8.4 billion per annum.
Mental health first aid being more widely available in the workplace could make a real contribution to reducing the human and financial costs of mental health problems.
That is why I, and colleagues across the House of Commons, believe that giving employers a legal responsibility to ensure someone in the workplace is trained in mental health first aid makes sense. I hope the proposal secures government support.