Greg Wright: The case for introducing mental health first aiders at work

Jodie Hill believes all firms must have a mental health first aider  Picture Scott Merrylees
Jodie Hill believes all firms must have a mental health first aider Picture Scott Merrylees
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There was a time when thousands of people had legitimate reasons for fearing they might not live to see the end of the working day.

Today, many bosses complain about red tape and being shackled by health and safety laws.

But these rules were imposed for a reason. They are there to save lives.

As the TUC observed on Workers’ Memorial Day, which is held on April 28, every year more people are killed around the world at work than in wars. Just as the memorial day acts as a rallying cry to remember the dead, we must also fight for the living by finding new ways of making the working environment more humane and supportive.

Significant improvements in workplace safety have never come about by chance. They have been driven by campaigners who saw a wrong and were determined to put it right. These campaigners were often forced to display moral and physical courage in order to prevent children from being worked to death. In the early 1800s, many children worked 16-hour days in terrible conditions alongside their parents. Child labour was not confined to mills but was also rife in the coal mines, where children began work at the age of five and usually died before they were 25.

It was not until 1833, when pressure from Christian groups led to the first Factory Act, that the situation began to improve. Under its terms, it became illegal for children under nine to work in textile factories.

By the end of the 19th century, seven more Factory Acts had been passed due to pressure from campaigning groups, and the workplace rights we all take for granted started to take shape. Anyone grumbling about health and safety rules must pause and consider this simple fact; there has been an estimated 85 per cent reduction in fatal injuries to UK-based employees since 1974. According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, (HSE) 137 workers were killed at work in 2016/17, with construction and farming workers ranking among the most vulnerable. Although the death toll has fallen, the HSE’s own data reveals that the picture for work-related illness remains mixed.

For example, the rate of self-reported work-related stress has remained broadly flat over the last 20 years, which suggests a new regulatory approach is needed.

Our grandparents might have been mystified by the sudden appearance of compulsory first aiders in their workplace. Today, it would be unthinkable to start the working day without having somebody with first aid training in the building.

If it’s compulsory to have somebody on the payroll who understands physical first aid, wouldn’t it also be a smart move to have a mental health first aider on the premises?

The demand for support is clearly there. Around 15 per cent of workers have a mental health condition. Each year 300,000 people with a mental health condition lose their jobs.

With support, many of these people might have remained in work and continued to contribute to the UK economy. The total cost to the UK of poor mental health is estimated at a whopping £73bn to £97bn a year. Yorkshire lawyer Jodie Hill has started a petition calling for a new law that would force all businesses to have at least one member of staff who has been trained as a mental health first aider.

As Ms Hill’s petition states: “ It is thought that by spending just 80p on health promotion and intervention, £4 can be saved in costs due to absenteeism, temporary staff and ‘presenteeism’. But perhaps more importantly, employers can ensure that an employee with a mental health issue can be helped through what is likely to be one of the most difficult times in their life, while remaining in a supportive workplace.”

All change carries an initial cost, but for a few hundred pounds and two days’ training, each company could dramatically improve its support system for some of its most valuable workers. Having a mental health first aider in place also sends out a strong message about the company’s core values, which will make it attractive to younger workers who are more inclined to place an emphasis on conducting business with a compassionate face.