Mental health first aid at work

20 Mar 2019 By Joe Nicholls

What are the benefits to both employers and employees of having trained mental health first aiders at work? Joe Nicholls reports

The definition of mental health as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional wellbeing”, isn’t suggestive of a negative state – and yet the stigma surrounding it is one of weakness and indignity.

Conversely, supporting those with physical impairments has for decades required employers to provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work. 

The word ‘personnel’ is key here. Most businesses have first aiders who are trained to administer basic first aid for physical injuries. Far rarer is the presence of staff trained to deliver first aid for mental conditions. This is an area where we’ve barely started to tackle the challenges that exist in almost every workplace in the country.

The statistics

  • One in four people suffers with mental health conditions every year, yet 75 per cent receive no treatment;
  • The annual impact to the economy is estimated to exceed £100bn;
  • Every year, for each employee whose mental health needs are unsupported, it costs business £1,300;
  • 84 per cent of UK line managers believe they are responsible for employee wellbeing, but only 24 per cent have received training.


Depression is the leading cause of disability globally, according to the World Health Organisation. Interestingly, the law governing disability in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010), talks about physical features as a barrier to disabled employees. Could it be that the legislation, only around a decade old, is already out of date? 

While the disadvantages are categorised more broadly as well and the definition of disability also includes mental impairments, it does seem that when drafting EqA 2010, parliament primarily had physical restrictions in mind. 

What are the current requirements?

It is a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to remove disadvantages suffered by people with a disability. Often, implementing flexible working arrangements and reduced workloads are helpful in reducing absence levels. The offer of contemplation rooms, breaks or counselling programmes are also widely used. But is that enough? 

There are estimates that UK businesses can save up to £8bn annually by implementing better mental wellbeing support in the workplace. The benefits of talking about mental health can make a significant difference, but many people don’t know what to say or are fearful of saying the wrong thing.

What is mental health first aid?

Having someone trained to properly listen and understand, sitting side-by-side instead of face-to-face, asking what the person is going through or how they feel can make a significant difference in the management of a condition. A trusted, calm and non-judgmental listener can be the first step in essential treatment and recovery. 

Organisations such as Mental Health First Aid England seek to normalise attitudes and behaviours around mental health, by training people to develop the skills necessary to look after people’s wellbeing. 

Licensed training is designed to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce the stigma faced by those who experience them. It provides practical skills, knowledge and confidence to recognise symptoms, and help and effective support to guide them towards seeking appropriate professional help.

The impact

Positive mental health allows people to realise their full potential, cope with the stresses of life, work productively and make meaningful contributions.

A business that wants a healthy workforce needs to set the right culture. This includes training managers and providing facilities for staff to contemplate, talk and open up to colleagues they trust won’t judge or dismiss them. 

The more an employer invests in the health of their employees, the more it will benefit from an engaged and productive workforce. Irrespective of size, this is an investment all businesses cannot afford to overlook.

Joe Nicholls is head of the employment law team at Hodge Jones & Allen

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