Mental health first aid bill presented to parliament may not become law, but HR would likely welcome the change, experts say

Commentators warn that MHFA on its own could be ‘detrimental’ but that people professionals would benefit from a trained mental health first aider

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Conservative MP Dean Russell has proposed a new Bill in the House of Commons this week which would make it a legal requirement for businesses to offer Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. 

The Bill was proposed in hopes it would lead to more people spotting early signs of mental health issues in the workplace, and Russell told MPs that the training would “save lives”. 

According to the BBC, Russell proposed it as a Ten Minute Rule Bill – which allows a backbench MP to make a case for a new Bill in a speech lasting up to ten minutes, which can also be opposed, before the House decides whether it should be introduced – but BBC reporting said he also tried to enact “similar legislation” in 2021, with no success. 

The bill received no objections and will go through to a second reading on 24th February, which is not unusual for Bills at this stage as there is not proper time for MPs to review its content. 

In his original attempt in 2021, Russell referenced the work of the Where’s Your Head At! campaign, which was led by Bauer Media UK and Mental Health First Aid England, which gained 200,000 signatures to make mental health first aid part of workplace first aid. 

Simon Blake, chief executive at Mental Health First Aid England, welcomed the proposed new Bill as it highlighted the importance of good mental health at work, but advised that it be treated the same as physical first aid. 

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“Giving Mental Health First Aid and Physical First Aid parity of esteem in the eyes of the law would be an important demonstration of employers taking account of their peoples’ physical and mental health – both are equally important, and inextricably linked,” said Blake, adding that the Bill, at the very least, will “shine a light” on mental health at work.  

Deborah Scales, senior solicitor for Clarkslegal, confirmed that while the Bill “may not become law anytime soon because of the parliamentary timetable”, people professionals would likely welcome a change set in law. 

“Most HR departments would welcome the appointment of a Mental Health First Aider, as many of the problems HR have to deal with stem from the symptoms of stress, anxiety and poor mental health,” said Scales, who added that this would be a “relatively swift and cost-effective” way to help the workplace. 

But Kate Underwood, managing director and HR director at Kate Underwood HR and Training, said that for larger organisations, the law would be “just another thing to add to the list”, and that supporting MHFA has not been considered for SMEs. She added that mental health support is needed, but “one size does not fit all”. 

Russell told MPs that the Bill will “simply mean that workers have a person to signpost them to the help and support they need, when they need it” and that it could limit the long-term impact of mental health on businesses and “prevent losing others in the future”. 

The proposition follows data from Health and Safety England (HSE) which found that stress, depression and anxiety accounted for half (51 per cent) of work-related illness last year. Between 2021/2022, HSE found that mental illness accounted for 914,000 new or long-standing ill health. 

Similarly, analysis of official data by IPPR found that just under two thirds (60 per cent) of people who are economically inactive because of long-term illness are living with a mental health problem. 

However, Lee Chambers, founder and psychologist at Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, warned that MHFA on its own can be “detrimental” if it isn’t part of a wider wellbeing strategy. “As part of a robust wellbeing strategy, MHFA would be one of the last, added value things you would bring in, like a cherry on the cake.”

While Sarah Williams, head of employment at Taylors Solicitors, agreed that just one mental health first aider is “likely to be inadequate”, she added there was plenty HR could do to fill the gap. 

“Every person, every manager, every employee and every person associated with a business should receive basic information and training about mental health issues,” said Williams. 

“This can be done at employee induction, on the shop-floor as part of a review, or literature and communications around the workplace can be used. The fact is we all need to be alert to mental health issues.”

Williams also added that the Equality Act 2010 played a part in protecting an employee with a mental health condition, and that employers are “legally obligated” to help employees. She said this goes “well beyond signposting” and usually means offering support through employee benefits, healthcare or even “adjustments to the way an employee works”.