Treat mental health the same as physical conditions in employment law, say business leaders

Leading employers call for updated health and safety and equalities legislation to promote mental wellbeing

A number of the country’s most notable employers have called on the government to place mental health on the same level as physical first aid in employment and health and safety legislation.

In an open letter yesterday, a number of UK business leaders called on prime minister Theresa May to prioritise manifesto pledges to update legislation and act on mental health in the workplace. 

The changes mean that under health and safety law, employers would have to provide appropriate training to help employees deal with mental ill-health. Workplaces would also be required to make provision for mental as well as physical first aid. 

If the manifesto pledge was enacted in full, meanwhile, the Equality Act would be changed to recognise “episodic and fluctuating” mental health conditions. 

Fionuala Bonnar, chief operating officer for Mental Health First Aid England, said the open letter showed business leaders “clearly recognise the need to support their employees’ mental health in the same way they do their physical health”. 

“The change in legislation we are calling for will establish a baseline for protecting mental health in the workplace, ensuring no one is left behind,” Bonnar said. “This is just one part of improving approaches to workplace mental health, but it represents an important step forward.”

The letter said requiring employers to implement “some basic steps to protect an employee’s mental health” would reduce the financial and business costs of workplace mental ill-health.

Signatory Paul Keenan, CEO of Bauer Media UK & European Radio, said the impact of neglecting mental ill-health in the workplace is “both an economic and human cost which we have the opportunity to alleviate”.

“By investing in the physical and mental health of our people we will not only unlock human potential in the workplace but reduce astronomical costs to the economy,” Keenan said. “It is imperative the government takes notice of UK employers and the public, who are standing up and calling for change.”

The open letter was also signed by Royal Mail, Channel 4, Business in the Community, PwC, Ford, Thames Water and Weight Watchers, as well as the Unite union. 

The letter said employers “have a duty of care to staff” and “while some employers are at the forefront of change, equalising their number of mental health first aiders with physical first aiders, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind”.

It continued: “Cost cannot be a reason for objections because in the long run it is inevitable that making mental health first aid in the workplace mandatory will save money.”

Stephen Clarke, WHSmith CEO, signed the open letter, saying employees’ mental health is “of equal importance to their physical health”. 

“We are calling for this legislative change, alongside many other leading employers, as we firmly believe that everyone should have access to first aid support for their mental health regardless of where they work,” Clarke said.

The letter added that amending workplace legislation would ensure employees have “the right to a mentally healthy environment” and can access a trained staff member to receive support and guidance if they are dealing with a mental health issue at work. 

Earlier this month, experts criticised another government-initiated workplace wellbeing strategy which urged employers to “help improve the health of their staff and the nation” by offering staff perks like free fruit, bicycle loans and counselling. 

Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD president and professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, argued the government’s initiative would not by itself create a healthier workplace. 

“It’s great to encourage staff to do things that will make them healthier, but if you create a long working hours culture and send emails that interfere with private hours, it will not foster a psychologically healthy working environment,” Cooper said. “Giving them all these little bits and bobs is not creating that healthier culture.”