Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:16 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:16 pm, 17th January 2019

The right hon. Gentleman has obviously had sight of my notes, because I was going to refer to that point later. He is absolutely right. The 30-year terrorist campaign has a legacy, and it affects us. I will mention that in my comments.

When I was first elected in 2010, I took in a new part of my constituency, Ballynahinch, which I very quickly found out had some serious problems in relation to suicides. They were mostly among young people, and unfortunately they seemed to be cluster suicides, if I can use that terminology. A number of young people took their lives, but the community very quickly reacted in Killyleagh and Ballynahinch. Church groups, community groups and interested individuals came together and addressed those issues. With Government Departments, they helped to reduce the level of suicides. It was particularly stressful to be confronted with that as an MP so early in his parliamentary term.

One in six workers suffer from anxiety, depression and unmanageable stress each year, causing 74% of people with a mental health problem to take more than a year out of work. In 2015, 18 million days were lost to sickness absence caused by mental health conditions. Mental health issues affect both the work and the lifestyle of countless people. Urgent action must be taken to educate employers about the difficulties that result from mental illnesses, mainly to help those who are struggling in the workplace but also to benefit those employers, for whom that may mean cost outlays. It follows that not only is a happier worker a more productive worker, but there should be a natural decrease in sickness periods. Other Members have mentioned that.

If employers are to take steps to promote and improve people’s wellbeing in their workplaces, they need to be able to identify an instance in which someone may be struggling with mental health problems, but it is not always easy to do so. I understand that, because I have talked to many people who seem to be smiley, jokey and happy, and may be the life and soul of the party, but when they go home they are very different. Sometimes we do not really know what is happening. In the workplace, there needs to be someone who can see through the façade to the real person underneath.

Some 49% of workers said that they would not be comfortable disclosing a mental health issue at work. Others in the workplace should be educated to ensure that they can recognise individuals who are dealing with such problems. They should be trained in mental health issues—and that should include mental health first aid—so that the workplace can become a positive environment.

Given that two in five employers admit that they have seen a rise in mental health problems, it is important for workplaces to foster a culture of support and openness for those needing help, making them feel reassured about seeking assistance from fellow employees. The Scottish Association for Mental Health, backed by the Scottish Government, has adopted a programme on physical activity. I can say with all honesty and sincerity that the Scottish Government, and their Health Department in particular, lead on health issues in general, including mental health issues. I know that Chris Stephens will probably mention this, but I think it important for us to recognise good practice wherever it may be, and I hope that we can replicate it in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Better together, that is what I always say.

I believe that the Department for Work and Pensions must take the lead, and that all workplaces should be supplied with a mental health toolkit as standard practice. It should be issued not just to those who request it, but to all who are paying tax for a business. That could be modelled on the content of the current publications by Public Health England, Business in the Community and the Samaritans—what a good job they do to address these issues. Every one of us will know what really tremendous work they do in our constituencies, and I cannot praise the volunteers highly enough. To engage employers to participate in initiatives such as “Time to Change” and be educated further on the subject of mental health, there must be a move from the Department, and help must be garnered from it.

It has been suggested that as well as becoming involved with mental health organisations, companies should review their absence policies and make keeping-in-touch arrangements, as evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions. There must be tools to enable employers to create an employee assistance programme. I have read research indicating that in the few businesses that use such a programme, 25% of employees say that their organisation encourages staff to talk openly about their mental health issues. Research shows that the more people do that, the easier it becomes to deal with their problems. We are always hearing that “it’s good to talk”, and that is so true, but many of the people we meet may not have anyone to talk to.

Such programmes not only help the individuals who are suffering with mental health problems, but benefit companies. Better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year. If we do the job right we can save money, and so can the businesses, because they will have a happier and more productive workforce.

Three quarters of all mental health problems are established by the age of 24, when people are entering long-term careers. That is another factor that we should recognise at that early stage. As many as 300,000 people a year lose their jobs because companies are not sure how to provide the help and support that they need. In the past year, 74% of people have felt stressed as they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope owing to the demands of their career. Managers should be able to spot the signs of common mental health conditions, but that happens only when they receive dedicated training. Others have referred to the need for such knowledge of what is happening. Many managers are blind to, or uneducated about, the symptoms of mental illnesses, and it is all too easy in the busy working world to be consumed by a goal and not to see the elements that are in play around us. We would never send an engineer into a dangerous environment without the necessary training, so why should we assume that companies can automatically notice when an employee’s health is plummeting?

I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, are like the rest of us in this regard: we often eat at our desks. However, that does not mean that everyone else has to do it. We have to recognise that sometimes it is good to get away from our desks and go for a walk, and have our minds on other things for a time. The benefits of regular breaks and eating lunch away from desks, and creating a positive workplace state of mind, should be promoted to those who have a busy life and seek to cram things into every second at the risk of their mental health.

As we heard a moment ago from Mr Jones, Northern Ireland in particular is struggling with the issue of mental health owing to a lack of resources. When compared with 17 other countries, Northern Ireland was shown to have the second highest rates of mental health illness, 25% higher than those in England. That is certainly largely due to 30 years of the troubles and the legacy of the terrorist campaign, but it is more than that. We must address those issues and do better in enabling people to lead high-quality lives with the tools to handle stress and daily life. A massive step in that regard would be creating mental first aid as standard in workplaces.

Workplace mental ill health costs employers about £26 billion a year, and many places are struggling to find the large amount of money that is needed to improve their awareness of mental health. A report for the NHS found that mental illness accounts for nearly half of all ill health in people younger than 65, and that only a quarter of people in need of treatment currently get it.

This is a health issue, but it is important for four Departments to come together with a strategy, because it is not just about health. It should also involve the DWP, the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Companies need to be given more support and funds, as does the NHS to help those who are suffering in the long term, as it is currently unable to provide the materials needed. Action needs to be taken, because the number of sick days due to mental health issues is increasing rapidly owing to negative work environments: 89% of employees with mental health problems say that it affects their work lives hugely. That needs to change, for the betterment not only of business and the economy but of those who are struggling with mental health issues.

I look forward to the comments of both the Minister and the shadow Minister. I am convinced—as, I think, is everyone in the Chamber—that we shall hear a positive and helpful response from the Minister.