A step closer to compulsory mental health first aid

Our Clinical Governance Officer Suzanne Marshall RN explains why we're supporting a new parliamentary bill.

NB: this article was written before FirstCare rebranded to GoodShape on 30.10.21

We’re pleased to see our local MP Dean Russell take a bill to parliament proposing that mental health first aid be made compulsory in UK workplaces. We were able to provide strong evidence to support the bill and highlight its importance.

One of Mr Russell’s political ambitions is to find ways to remove the stigma around mental health, and to do that – he says – there needs to be parity between mental and physical health in society.

We couldn’t agree more; FirstCare has always been vocal about the importance of mental health first aid.

Much like administering physical first aid, a swift and considered response to early signs of mental ill health can prevent a bigger, more complex issue developing. As with traditional first aid, mental health first aid is not intended to replace the expertise of a professional. The idea is for mental health first aiders to talk to individuals in a helpful, non-judgemental manner, and guide them towards the right support.

What are the benefits of mental health first aid?

  • First and foremost, the benefits of early intervention to a struggling individual are proven: it’s no exaggeration to say that – for some people – getting the right support at the right time can be lifesaving. FirstCare’s nurse-led call service handled 614 life-threatening ‘Code Red’ clinical incidents in 2020, 26% of which were related to mental health.
  • For businesses, wellbeing in the workplace is vital to morale and productivity, and provision of mental health training demonstrates a commitment to protecting and supporting employees.
  • Identifying those employees suffering poor mental health and talking openly provides opportunity to understand root causes and put measures in place to help and support. The better you understand the problem, the better you can work to solve it, and prevent unnecessary recurrence.
  • By providing mental health support, employers not only protect the health of each individual employee, but also the resilience of the workforce overall.

Our figures show that 63% of workers will leave their job after twice taking time off work due to mental health troubles. Early intervention, through mental health first aid, can disrupt such patterns by ensuring the right support is there to break the cycle.

Mental health issues can manifest themselves in many different ways, (for example – as gastrointestinal problems) and early recognition of the symptoms is key. We know from experience that FirstCare’s nurse triage system identifies more incidences earlier, so they can be treated appropriately.

COVID and mental health

Before the COVID-19 crisis struck, mental health had become the leading cause of lost working days in the UK (surpassing musculoskeletal issues in 2018). We’ve seen a continued rise over the last three years, and it’s hardly surprising that being plunged into a pandemic has further contributed to stress and anxiety levels.
Mental health first aid is more relevant and important now than ever.

Year Estimated % of UK workforce that took time off for poor mental health
2018 3.9%
2019 5.2%
2020* 5.8%

*For our data to show even a small rise in 2020 is significant; with so many people furloughed and no real ‘requirement’ to phone and report absence due to mental health troubles, it’s telling that there’s still an increase.

Our data reveals some striking connections between COVID and mental health:

  • 1 in 7 workers who need time off related to COVID subsequently need time off for poor mental health.
    • Mental health-related absences following COVID-related absences last 63% longer.
    • Mental health-related absences last 20.7 days on average.
  • Following COVID-related absences, the average duration is 33.6 days.
  • 45% of all mental health-related lost working time during the pandemic has followed COVID-related absence.

Thankfully, insight like this means that such trends can be identified, addressed and reduced.

Now is the time

Dean Russell’s proposed Private Members’ Bill is particularly timely, considering that data from previous lockdowns shows the number of working days lost due to mental health troubles actually rose as restrictions eased. For example, from May to July last year – the period in which workplaces, schools, and non-essential businesses re-opened – working time lost to poor mental health jumped 47%.

So, while there’s plenty of hopeful news emerging, and the speed of the vaccine rollout so far has been remarkable it’s important for employers to recognise that many employees will still be feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

Growing awareness of mental health in recent years has seen more valuable discussions happening across the UK and the pandemic has, at least, brought the topic to the fore and normalised these conversations even further. We’re proud to see mental health now on the national agenda, and delighted to support our local MP in championing the importance of mental health first aid with this parliamentary bill.

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