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Is compulsory mental health first aid training at work the right move?  

Yesterday (23 March) Dean Russell, MP for Watford, introduced a Parliamentary Bill to make mental health first-aid (MHFA) a compulsory part of every UK workplace's first-aid training.

Having passed through its first reading, the Bill is scheduled to have a second reading in parliament today giving MPs the opportunity to debate its terms, which could prove controversial.

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Emily Pearson, managing director and founder of corporate mental health consultancy Our Minds Work, is sceptical of the effect compulsory MHFA training will have.

Speaking to HR magazine she said: “We have a long way to go before MHFA can be safely implemented in the workplace as best practice, never mind compulsory for all workplaces.”

In 2019, a report from The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) raised concerns about firms running MHFA programmes without adequate policy, procedure and training to avoid safeguarding issues.

Pearson added: “I don’t think that MHFA providers give employers enough professional guidance and support to safely implement and run a team of mental health first aiders (MHFAs) in the workplace.”

Many MHFA training programmes are run as a two-day course without any further follow-up or integration in the business. Pearson said that taking this course therefore creates a bigger risk than no training at all, and further legislation is required to back it up.

She added: “Most employers won’t have a policy and procedure on how to respond if a colleague is at risk of significant harm to themselves.

“In physical health and safety terms it’s like calling an ambulance after giving your colleague CPR and not having to log it anywhere or report it to anyone.”

Supporting the Bill is MHFA training provider Mental Health First Aid England. MHFA England workplace lead Vicki Cockman said that the while it recognises compulsory training is not the whole solution it is a step in the right direction.

Cockman told HR magazine: “With the Centre for Mental Health predicting that 8.5 million more adults will need mental health support as a result of COVID-19, it is imperative that employers play their part in creating a culture of care.

“Taking a wide-ranging look at workplace policies is key to effectively embedding practices like mental health first aid and to designing a mentally healthy business. And it should be a priority.”

Thames Water currently provides MHFA training as part of its wider mental health support for employees. According to Karl Simons, its chief health, safety and wellbeing officer, mental health first aiders have helped devise a culture shift at the company.

He said: “Confidence has grown throughout the company with people now much more willing to come forward, talk and seek support at their time of need.”

For every physical first aid intervention Thames Water has had over the past year Simons said there has been an average of five interventions for mental health.

Over a five-year period, having MHFA on hand has led to a 75% decrease in occupational health referrals for stress, anxiety and depression.

Simons added: “Workplaces play a key role in creating a society where everyone's mental health matters and thousands of employers are already implementing mental health first aid training as a way of taking practical action.”

Severn Trent also has a comprehensive network of mental health support for its workers, including having trained 360 MHF aiders since 2016.

Commenting on the move to make MHFA training compulsory, Severn Trent group HR director Neil Morrison, told HR magazine: “As long as the training and provision of the aspects of mental health first aid are as disciplined as those for physical first aid then this feels like a positive contribution. In the same way we wouldn’t expect a first aider to treat a complex physical problem, we shouldn’t expect them to face into complex issues of mental wellbeing.

“Organisations need to think about a comprehensive approach to mental wellbeing that builds on this and provides a broader range of support.”

MHFA England offers free resources for employers looking to integrate MHFAs into their wellbeing strategy and Our Minds Work has a Service Blueprint to help guide employers through setting up a voluntary mental health service for colleagues.