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What could a mental health first aid law look like… and do we need one?

Not for the first time, MPs in the House of Commons are debating a potential new law that could make it a legal requirement for all businesses in the UK to provide access to mental health first aid (MHFA) in the workplace.

There is definitely a sense of déjà vu about this whole discussion.

The current First Aid (Mental Health) Bill that has sparked debate among MPs was introduced into Parliament under the Ten Minute Rule in January this year by Watford MP Dean Russell, who made a first attempt in 2021 with a similar Bill that faltered in its early stages.

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On this occasion, the new version of the Bill received no objections from MPs, and it is now due to receive a Second Reading in the coming months, which is the second stage in a long process through both Houses of Parliament before it can become law, if indeed it becomes law at all.

In my view, for this second chance, the window of opportunity feels too short to complete all the necessary stages, including receiving Royal Assent, before the General Election in early 2025.

But there is also what could be described as a sense of double déjà vu here.

Some observers and colleagues in the industry have pointed to Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) which, under duty of care, already protects employees for both physical and psychological health.

This almost 50-year-old law might already be able to achieve what Dean Russell MP seeks to deliver via his latest Bill. However, we cannot yet offer a clear opinion, since the details of the potential new law have not been expanded upon nor published. Suffice to say, as with many legal discussions, opinions are divided.

What we do know is that the focus of the Bill is on making MHFA training a legal requirement for businesses. Critics have already begun to argue that it could create more administrative work for businesses, particularly smaller companies, and that a one-size law does not fit all.

What is important for me is a clear focus on the desired outcome: we want to be able to support our employees’ mental health in the best possible way, but also to make this part of a much wider wellness strategy within the workplace.

It is important to remember that access to mental health training alone will not be job done; by the time an individual reaches out at work for help with challenges in their lives, things may have already hit a critical point.

An active and ongoing programme of events in the workplace can encourage employees to ask for help sooner, and so looking at mental health and wellness in the round is vital.

At Setfords, we are on a long-term board-backed journey with mental health awareness, training and support. So much so, we are looking to recruit a qualified counsellor to be available once per week for employees who feel they need somebody to talk to in confidence.

For me, in my day-to-day work as an HR professional, the topics of mental health and wellness in general in the workplace are close to my heart, and I am proud to work for a company that takes this seriously – without the need for legislation to make that happen.

I know of many employers who are have already introduced mental health first aiders, as well as additional support in the same way we have, but many more businesses have yet to do anything at all.

As employers, we have a responsibility to do more. The best examples of support I have come across focus more on creating a safe environment for people to feel comfortable and secure about discussing mental health issues openly, backed up with a wide range of activities that lean more into prevention.

Our four mental health first aiders, of which I am one, are available on a one-to-one basis when needed or during ongoing ‘drop in’ sessions each month – but our wider wellness support is as equally important.

For example, we offer live webinar events covering a very broad range of subjects, such as the importance of sleep, menopause and financial wellness. These are led by external experts in their fields, and can be accessed via a live stream and are recorded to watch later or again.

We recently added morning meditation sessions every workday morning, and another popular activity during the summer was the opportunity for employees to invite a family member to join us for lunch, building a bridge between home life and work, which can be a struggle for some people.

On their own, these activities are not a single solution. Just as mental health first aid training alone will not be the sole answer. Whatever an eventual law looks like, if we need one, it needs to stretch much more widely to have the best possible impact and outcomes.

Perhaps, as employers, the responsibility is on us to take the lead, rather than relying on legislation to deliver what is, in my opinion, part of a basic duty of care.

Suzy Blade is head of HR at Setfords