Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:54 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 1:54 pm, 17th January 2019

After yet another week of fractious and angry political discourse, what a pleasure it is to work with two honourable friends—I use that term advisedly—the hon. Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on an issue of incredible importance. It is important that those watching or reading about this debate recognise that it is possible for right hon. and hon. Members to focus on important issues such as mental ill health, as well as fractious arguments over Brexit.

I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View for what he said about his experience of OCD. Interestingly, OCD has also affected my family as our oldest son was diagnosed with it as a teenager. He has since spoken about his experience, and I speak with his authority and approval. What the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of people in his position speaking out about such conditions is important. I remember the moment when, as a teenager, Archie said to me, “Why I am the only person who is going mad?” For a parent to hear that from their child is awful and incredibly distressing, and it makes one realise what a teenager must be going through if that is how they feel about their situation. Of course that is an entirely false perspective, because one then realises that so many others are experiencing their own challenges, and when that realisation dawns, it makes it much easier for individuals to speak out. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said and for talking to the press about this issue, because cumulatively that makes a difference.

The Time to Change campaign has been incredibly powerful in helping to normalise mental ill health, and every time someone in a public position speaks out, it becomes a little easier for another teenager to seek help and not be frightened about opening up. I join the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree in acknowledging the work of Natasha Devon, who is a great campaigner for mental health issues, and I thank Bauer Media and Mental Health First Aid England for championing this important cause.

On the cost of mental ill health, I wish to focus first on the cost to the individual, because it is often not recognised by those who do not experience it just how painful and disabling mental ill health can be. If someone is experiencing anxiety, depression or a condition such as OCD, their life is completely dominated by that. They often cannot enjoy life or be happy, and whenever we speak about the economic cost of mental ill health, we must focus on the most important thing, which is the cost to individuals of the ill health that so many experience.

Alongside that, however, there is a significant cost to employers—not just private sector employers, but the public sector, charities and so forth. Health and Safety Executive data show that 57% of days off work through ill health are due to mental ill health of one sort or another, and not confronting that represents an enormous cost to employers. This is not just about time off work, because many people end up falling out of work and on to benefits, and others turn up to work but under-perform—the concept of presenteeism—because they are not feeling on top of their game, or because they are obsessed by anxieties or concerns that prevent them from performing their work responsibilities effectively.

Addressing mental ill health is a win-win-win for everybody, because this issue affects not just individuals, but employers and even the Government, who gain as a result of us taking it more seriously. If someone falls out of work because of mental ill health, they end up claiming benefits, and that is an enormous cost to the Government and also impacts on the NHS. Everybody benefits by us taking this issue more seriously. The question then is how best to achieve an advance. Peter Aldous made a very important point when he said that we need to think carefully about how we frame that.

Under existing law, employers are under duties to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health makes that point very strongly in its brief for this debate. It makes the point that under the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 and associated regulations, employers are under a duty to manage the psycho-social risk to their employees at work. There is also the duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments where people are suffering from some sort of disability, including mental ill health. I also applaud the Health and Safety Executive for the new guidance it issued in November 2018. For the first time, it includes a section on mental health. That is important. These are all advances worth acknowledging. I would also like to acknowledge the work of Paul Farmer and Lord Stevenson, which was commissioned by the Government. Their report “Thriving at Work” recommends mental health core standards for every employer.

None the less, the first aid legislation is very much framed in terms of physical health. It is very important to establish clearly in legislation—just as we did in the coalition Government, where we legislated for parity of esteem in the NHS—a very important principle for the workplace: an equality in the importance of both physical and mental health in the workplace. I want to stress that it is about much more than just mental health first aid, vital though that is—I totally endorse all the comments made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree.

I want to highlight the potential risks, as the hon. Member for Waveney made clear, of not getting this right. There is a risk of the tick-box exercise, where an employer can just say, “Yes, we have trained someone up in mental health first aid. We’ve done nothing else, but we have ticked the box and therefore we have met the regulation.” That would be a failure for all of us if that was the outcome of this exercise.

The more fundamental point is that the approach we should be taking is about preventing ill health in the workplace. The whole focus should be on creating healthy workplaces, where people are treated with dignity and respect. It is vital that employees across the workforce have the opportunity to raise their awareness and understanding of mental health. Alongside that, however, we have to think about the causes of stress and anxiety in the workplace. Often, it is due to unhealthy workplaces, where people are not respected and where there is a bullying culture. Depressingly, we see that quite often in the NHS. That has to be confronted, because that is the cause of so many people feeling anxious, distressed and depressed as a result of what happens at work.