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Campaign for legal mental health parity launched

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Bauer Media UK has launched a campaign calling for mental health to be treated on a par with physical health at work

The campaign 'Where’s Your Head At' calls on Sarah Newton, minister of state for disabled people, health and work, to commit to updating health and safety laws to ensure that businesses have the same obligation to provide mental health first aiders as they do physical health first aiders.

Prominent business leaders have backed the campaign, including UK chairman and managing director of Ford Andy Barratt, chief executive of WH Smith Stephen Clarke, and Bupa's UK CEO David Hynam.

A campaign petition has been supported by the Centre for Mental Health and The Samaritans, and has received more than 188,000 signatures so far.

A survey conducted as part of Where's Your Head At found that 86% agreed that mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing the country. Thirty-three per cent said they are more stressed now than they were a couple of years ago, while 90% feel there is still a taboo around discussing mental health.

It is estimated that mental illness costs the UK economy around £99 billion each year, with the equivalent of 12.5 million working days lost because of workplace-related stress, depression and anxiety.

Paul Keenan, CEO of Bauer Media UK, said: “The support from the public and business leaders for the law change means this can no longer be ignored. We are seeking a seismic change in how mental health is viewed in the UK, and urge other business leaders who agree this law change would benefit their business and their people to stand with us.”

Arwen Makin, a senior solicitor at esphr, provider of HR magazine's HR Legal Service, said that such a change to the law would be a positive step in helping end stigma surrounding mental health.

“Legally employers have to treat mental health and physical health in the same way. Those who have long-standing issues with their mental illness to the point where it affects their day-to-day lives are protected under the Equality Act,” she said. “However, we know that there is a tremendous amount of stigma still attached to discussing mental illness at work so anything that works to improve that, especially when it’s backed by senior business leaders, should be commended.”

However, Makin warned that even if the campaign is successful the complexities of mental illness could still make effective changes difficult.

“Interestingly, the campaign says that mental illness should be treated as a health and safety issue. With physical health it’s easy to assess whether an employer has adequate first aid at hand, and if there are risks to physical health and safety in the workplace.

“But with mental illness it’s far more complex. How will employers be able to judge if someone is at crisis point with their mental health? Mental illness is not always detectable, and it isn’t predictable. Some people will feel able to approach their employers when something is wrong, others will not.”

Makin added that this could be particularly difficult for smaller businesses. “Having a mental health professional on site is an amazing resource but smaller businesses and public services may worry that this isn’t feasible," she said.

"However, all employers can still make sure they are willing to speak openly about mental health, and are working to identify particularly stressful periods or environments where employee mental health is at risk."