Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:27 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 2:27 pm, 17th January 2019

Let me first praise Luciana Berger for securing the debate and for making an excellent speech. Let me also congratulate her, because she may well be the first person to have a motion passed in the House this week: every other motion seems to have been voted down.

I want to talk about some of my personal experiences. Before I came to this place, I was a trade union activist. When dealing with mental health issues, I had to remind employers of the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and reasonable adjustments, and to make them understand the nature of a particular condition and what can happen as a result of it. I used to encourage managers to ensure that first aiders were aware that someone might have such a condition. In particular, they needed to know if an employee was taking a specific medication because of the possible side effects. Medication can have an impact on behaviour and performance.

Jon Cruddas produced some shocking statistics on issues such as dismissal. In my view, much of that is due to aggressive management policies on attendance, not just in the private sector but in the public sector. When someone has been absent for a certain number of days, that can trigger an interview leading to the removal of sick pay or other forms of disciplinary action. That makes people go into what has been referred to as presenteeism. People also feel that, because they have been off for a certain number of days, if they are off another day, they will get the treatment. If we are going to have attendance management policies, they should be based on facts; they should not be aggressive and done just on the basis of trigger points.

I associate myself with the remarks by Norman Lamb about bullying. Bullying and harassment in the workplace is an issue and impacts on people’s mental health. So I strongly support the motion’s proposals to ensure that first aiders have adequate training. That is very much encouraged in trade unionised workplaces. I know hon. Members across the House will agree with me that trade unions play a vital role in trade unionised workplaces, ensuring that an employee with a mental health condition is looked after and given the proper support and that employers understand their conditions. This reminds me that one of the favourite books in the Glasgow Unison office was the “MIMS” book, which explained every piece of medication and their side effects. It was used as a tool to explain to employers the behaviour of those on medication or with a mental health condition and other problems that can arise, and to explain how to address those in a way that was fair and appropriate.

Jim Shannon encouraged me to promote the health service in Scotland and the 10-year mental health strategy, and I will talk briefly about that. Between January and June last year, there were a number of courses. There were 43 one-day courses on healthy workplaces for NHS managers, and 552 people were trained. There was training for trainers; 28 people are now delivering more courses. There were eight workshops on resilience and wellbeing; 97 people were trained on that. There were also three managers’ competency workshops; 36 people were trained on that.

In Scotland there is a 10-year mental health strategy. It seems to be working. Out of 40 actions, 13 are complete and 26 are progressing and ongoing. These training programmes are vital, as the hon. Gentleman said. The workplace training programmes deal with topics such as surviving the pressures of work-related stress, managing organisational stress and getting the Health and Safety Executive on board with those arrangements.

There is an opportunity for the UK Government to look at their good work plan as well in relation to ensuring that mental health issues in the workplace are dealt with appropriately. Issues to do with insecure work are not yet being tackled by the Government. That can have a real impact on someone’s mental health and wellbeing. There are issues about how the DWP deals with some of these issues, which I hope the Government will look at. For example, someone who refuses a zero-hours contract job could be sanctioned under universal credit, but if someone is on a legacy benefit they would not be sanctioned. The pressures of the DWP system of benefit conditionality can often be punitive.