In November 2018 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) updated its guidance on employer’s obligations regarding workplace health, specifically including mental health. Many parties felt this was long overdue. It came just days after 50 business leaders had written to the Prime Minister calling for a change in the law to protect mental health in the workplace, and the amendment of health and safety legislation to put mental and physical first aid on an equal footing.
So what does the guidance now say, and how can SMEs go about fulfilling their obligations?
New HSE guidance on mental health: employer obligations
The HSE’s guidance on first aid needs assessment states that:
“First aid provision must be ‘adequate and appropriate in the circumstances’. This means that you must provide sufficient first aid equipment (first aid kit), facilities and personnel at all times.”
As mental health is included in the guidance, from this it’s reasonable to suppose that while the role of first aid equipment may be limited in a situation where an employee’s health issue is mental rather than physical, there should be appropriate facilities and personnel to deal with the immediate needs of the situation. This is referred to in the section, ‘Mental ill health and first aid’.
“You might decide that it will be beneficial to have personnel trained to identify and understand symptoms and able to support someone who might be experiencing a mental health issue.”
The guidance also says that employers should consider ways to manage mental ill health in their workplace that are appropriate for their business. The examples of these management strategies are:
- Providing information or training for managers and employees
- Employing occupational health professionals
- Appointing mental health trained first aiders
- Implementing employee support programmes
Meeting employees’ mental health first aid needs
First aid training courses that cover mental health teach first aiders how to recognise warning signs of mental ill health and help them to develop the skills and confidence to approach and support someone, while keeping themselves safe.
A sensible first step would be to consider if your current first aiders are well suited to the role of taking on mental first aid duties too, and ensure they are happy to do so before arranging training. Let them look at the course description so that they can view the content included. They should be aware that a thorough course should include topics such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal behaviours, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, cognitive disorders, psychosis, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
To quote the advice from St John’s Ambulance:
“This course focuses on employees in the workplace and covers subjects that some people may find distressing, including suicide and self-harm. If a delegate feels overwhelmed they can leave the course at any time. However, if you feel in advance that this subject may be too distressing for the delegate please do not book them on without first asking them whether they would feel comfortable attending.”
If your current first aiders are not best suited to the role, or are unwilling to take it on, find alternative candidates.
Where should your candidates go for training? An increasing number of providers are offering mental health first aid training, including St John’s Ambulance, the British Safety Council, and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. Courses are often differentiated for young people’s mental health or adult mental health, so find a course that’s right for your needs.
MFHA have a handy guide for employers beginning this process, so if you’re not sure where to start, read Implementing Mental Health First Aiders: Guide for employers. For employees taking on the mental health first aider role, the MFHA have also produced Being a Mental Health First Aider: Your guide to the role.
For a better understanding of the issues involved and your duty as an employer, check out www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk, which has a range of resources for managers and employees, including advice on developing good policies and practice, improving workplace culture and assessing your organisation’s approach. The Federation for Small Businesses (FSB) is very vocal about improving mental health management and care in the workplace. You can find resources and small business case studies under the umbrella of their It’s Okay to Talk about Mental Health campaign. There’s also a good selection of news stories, blogs and advice on the topic that you can access here.