Will the new HSE guidelines on workplace mental health make any difference?

The latest government agency update heralds a step change for mental health at work, says Mel Fox

Last week, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) amended its advice to employers on first aid to include, for the first time, a mention of mental health.

Although the advice is simply that employers ‘should consider’ ways to manage mental ill health in their workplaces – it’s not a legal requirement – we at St John Ambulance welcome it and believe it heralds a step change. And we’re fairly sure HR professionals will be breathing a sigh of relief, too.

Over the last 15 months we have been working with Mental Health First Aid England to provide a range of courses in workplace mental health first aid. During that time we have seen demand rise rapidly, so much so, that we’ve already trained 6,000 people and are geared up to that figure more than doubling next year.

However, while some employers are waking up to the scale of stress, depression and other conditions among their workforces, our recent research shows there’s a long way to go.

Speaking to 900 customers, mainly HR professionals, we discovered that a tenth of the companies they worked for did not even recognise stress as a condition. Of those that did, a quarter were said to be doing nothing about it. And less than 20 per cent of businesses were known to have a mental health policy. Six out of 10 of those respondents said their employer should do more to address mental health.

This was no surprise to us, as we’ve been hearing HR managers say for some time that they were lobbying their MDs and chief executives to take mental health more seriously. In particular, they are highlighting the impact that sick days and even resignations have on the bottom line of business. In fact, it’s on the back of such conversations that in December, St John Ambulance will hold its first national summit for the profession on best mental health practice.

To back up the anecdotal evidence of the impact of unsupported mental health conditions at work, our research showed that one in four employees had indeed left a job due to such issues and a staggering 43 per cent had considered leaving. Conditions such as depression and stress had also caused nearly a third to miss work for a day or longer and nearly four in 10 had been prompted to leave work early.

So this is why we consider the HSE’s new guidelines to be so pivotal. Before the update, it was assumed an employer’s responsibility to supporting mental health was covered under a standard risk assessment, which took into account all health and safety needs. But in practice, due to the stigma attached to mental health, this simply hasn’t been happening. In our survey, 44 per cent said they didn’t feel able to tell their employer when they were feeling anxious or depressed at work – most citing ‘embarrassment’ as the main barrier.

We believe that through its explicit guidelines on managing mental health at work, the HSE has done its bit to lift the taboo, not only making it easier for HR managers to approach their bosses but for colleagues to talk to one another, too.

St John Ambulance believes in caring for people’s health holistically and is optimistic that many more employers will now give equal weight to mental and physical health.

Mel Fox is director of training and enterprise at St John Ambulance