Mental Health: First Aid or Second Class?

by Charu Agarwal, Senior Consultant

The Picture in Parliament

Early this year, Luciana Berger MP opened Parliamentary proceedings with a debate on the introduction of mandatory mental health first aiders for every workplace. Norman Lamb MP and Jonny Mercer MP also offered supporting arguments. However, despite cross party consensus, the proposals have yet to be rolled out. Industry leaders and Unions have also penned an open letter to Government expressing support for this law change. Furthermore, pressure is building to meet the commitment to equal prioritisation of mental and physical health set out in the latest NHS Long Term Plan (often referred to as parity of esteem).

Workplace Challenges

Many believe that mandatory mental health first aid in workplaces would be a positive step towards achieving parity of esteem. While policy makers are yet to announce a vision for how and when this happens, it is vital there is careful consideration around how the initiative will work in practice. At worst, it could result in businesses falling into a box-ticking regimen, with bosses failing to tackle genuine cultural or systemic issues within their workforce. There is also the challenge of convincing businesses already feeling the burden of over-regulation to embrace another mandatory initiative. Highlighting the business case is key in this. The World Health Organisation, Mental Health Foundation and Deloitte are just some of the many bodies speaking out on the link between mental wellbeing, productivity and presenteeism.

On the face of it, first aid for mental health might seem like a reactive strategy. Yet we need to start somewhere. By training people to recognise the early signs of mental illness and taking responsibility for tackling it, preventative measures will surely follow - along with a broader workplace culture that sees employers playing a greater role in educating and helping people provide better counsel to their peers.


Around 15% of the UK labour force are self-employed and exposed to a unique set of pressures. Inna Yordanova, Research Officer at IPSE (the Association of the Independent Professionals and the Self Employed) sees finances to be a key challenge:  

"In terms of their wellbeing, self-employed people are by and large satisfied with this way of working with four in five (80%) saying that they are happy in self-employment and 70 per cent intending to be self-employed in the foreseeable future.”

“Self-employment, however, doesn't come without its challenges and most concerns around being self-employed stem primarily from financial worries, including the irregularity of income or unpredictable finances, not being financially prepared for retirement and not being paid on time by a client.”

Indeed, Savanta ComRes research has found unstable income and unpredictable finances to be a concern for more than half (51%) of self-employed adults SavantaComRes/IPSE 2018 and - very worryingly - 62% claim to have no form of pension savings SavantaComRes/Fidelity 2018.

Yordova further acknowledges the need for fiscal support across Government and industry:

“Undoubtedly there is space for both government and industry to contribute to the wellbeing and financial prosperity of self-employed people and ensure self-employment remains a growing and valuable sector of the UK workforce. For policymakers, this means that fiscal policies need to adapt to the realities of the modern labour market, especially in areas such as late payment.”

“The financial services industry should also consider designing more products specifically for the self-employed – products that offer flexibility and account for irregular income patterns."

Looking Ahead

That this is a huge issue for both private and public sector employees is widely accepted.  NHS Digital suggests one in six adults experience some form of mental illness at any given time. There are around 28 million people in the UK workforce, so there are probably some five million people at work experiencing mental ill health.

Better workplace mental health cannot be created in isolation.  Solutions need to harness the enthusiasm of managers so that it becomes seen as part of the productivity mix and a positive contributor to a firm’s employer brand. They also require colleagues, friends and family to look out for each other so that promoting excellent workplace mental health becomes second nature and not a box to tick.

As we approach the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, we can hope the widespread efforts of the Green Ribbon Campaign in raising awareness will spur policy makers to recognise the vast scale of the issue - and employers can be helped and encouraged to provide more and better support to their workforces.