Five ways HR can ensure health and safety in the workplace

Although health and safety at work has not always covered employee mental health and wellbeing, it now needs to. Every UK business has a duty of care to look after the health and safety of their people, including wellbeing.

With depression, stress and anxiety now the largest cause of workforce sickness absence in the country, costing UK businesses a staggering £35bn a year, there’s no excuse for not having it covered.

Supporting employee wellbeing:

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And HR teams can play a key role in bringing about the organisational change needed to support people’s mental and physical wellbeing. Through understanding government policies and the law, pioneering new ideas, facilitating training for themselves and others and influencing management and culture, HR is in the privileged position to effect change that other teams would struggle to achieve.

Here are my tips for supporting both mental and physical health and safety in the workplace:

Introduce a workplace mental health and wellbeing policy

This should be the starting point for any organisation, but St John Ambulance research shows less than one in five people are aware of their employer having such a policy. 

The policy should explain why there is a need for a policy in the first place – informing on the impact of mental ill health and the benefits of fostering a positive workplace culture. It should then set out the overall and measurable health and wellbeing aims of the organisation, before detailing plans for roll-out and communication. Finally, the policy should reference the process by which progress and effectiveness will be regularly monitored.

St John has created a handy guide here.

Train a mental health first aider

A workplace mental health first aider is someone who has been trained to recognise the signs of someone suffering from mental ill health and how to support them.

They are trained in how to talk to people about their mental health and how to signpost them for help. They can advocate for employees experiencing mental ill health and make significant headway in breaking down taboos and fostering a culture which supports good mental health.

In particular, HR teams can:

  • Be sure the right people are trained
  • Be sure you have sufficient people trained
  • Support mental health first aiders once qualified
  • Provide them with key information on workplace policies

Introduce an employee assistance programme (EAP)

An EAP aims to support people experiencing problems with their mental health and wellbeing. With costs usually covered by the employer, they can offer advice and short-term counselling services. This is normally provided over the phone but not always.

The aim of an EAP is of course to help employees with their problems at the earliest possible stage, to prevent the problem getting worse and to lessen longer-term impact.

Ensure enough people have up-to-date physical first aid qualifications

Checking that first aider qualifications are in date is not about passing risk assessments – but keeping people safe. At times, the advice does change – as it did regarding primary surveys and resuscitation during COVID – and it is essential that those with responsibility have the correct knowledge and skills as workplaces open up again.

Many first aiders and fire marshals missed their re-qualifications due to COVID restrictions last year and may therefore not have refreshed skills for more than three years. In addition, changes to the workforce, for example, through redundancies, may have left workplaces with a vastly reduced number of qualified first aiders.

St John has created a useful return-to-work checklist here.


Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment

This is currently required by the Health and Safety Executive and should cover the following points:

  • Transmission What work activities or situations could cause transmission of COVID-19?
  • People Do you have members of your workforce, or visiting public, that could be more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19?
  • Exposure How likely could someone be exposed to the virus at your workplace?
  • Control Can you stop any activities to prevent transmission? If not, what can you do to control the risks?

 Stuart Payne is physical and mental health first aid trainer with St John Ambulance