Mental health first aiders: an employment lawyers view

As we start Mental Health Awareness week, Elizabeth Judson, Associate and Head of Employment at Jolliffe & Co LLP, tells us what it’s like to be a mental health first aider. She discusses how the scheme can not only boost wellbeing but potentially save lives.

Elizabeth Judson, Head of Employment at Jolliffe & Co LLP.

Mental health first aid training courses (‘MHFA’) came to England in 2007, having first been developed in Australia in 2000.  It is the vision of MHFA England to train one in ten people in MHFA skills, because we all have mental health.  Its aim is to empower people through education to take care of themselves and others.

Why is it important?

At the time I trained in MHFA I had been a qualified employment solicitor for eight years and therefore had advised many clients on managing employees in relation to their mental health.  I have seen many positive examples of the ways in which employers have supported employees under those circumstances but, at times, I have been shocked by the stigma held by some employers towards mental health and the poor way in which they have handled situations involving employees.

I have long-felt that this must be due to a lack of understanding about mental health and that if employers could be educated in mental health, the management of employees suffering with mental health issues would vastly improve.  For this reason, I chose to train in MHFA to enable me to better-support my employer clients which would, in turn, enable them to better-support their employees.

What does the training involved?

MHFA is a two-day training course, although there is an option to train in MHFA Lite which is a half-day course.  The course is based around a five-step action plan for providing first aid to those suffering with their mental health.  The course instructor educates the attendees on a variety of areas of mental health, how to spot the early signs of an issue and shows them how to apply the action plan in each case, which includes preserving life and guiding someone to appropriate sources of help.

Areas that are covered are those such as: depression; suicide; substance misuse; anxiety; self-harm; eating disorders; personality disorders; and psychosis.  From my own experience of the training, it seems common for those with experience of mental health issues (either personal, through family, through their careers or otherwise) to undertake the training.

While at times it felt a little overwhelming to hear the experiences of others, it also served to normalise mental health issues and helped attendees appreciate that mental health is something we all have and that anyone can suffer from a mental health issue at any time during their life.  The training also seeks to assist the attendees in looking after their own mental health which is of course essential in order to be in a position to assist others.

Read: from loneliness to discrimination, see here for articles on mental health.

What employers/ees gain from having mental health first aiders?

Both employers and employees stand to gain significantly from organisations having mental health first aiders.  There will of course be a reduced risk of successful employment tribunal claims and this is set out further below but the benefits extend far beyond that.

From my experience of advising employers, it seems to be the case that one of the main reasons employers fail to provide the right support is because they are afraid to have open and honest conversations with their employees about mental health issues.

Training in MHFA will give employers the confidence to have these conversations, listen to their employees and therefore be able to understand how their employees feel and what support they need.  When employees feel supported and able to discuss their concerns, they will feel better-able to continue to attend work and therefore sickness absence levels are likely to reduce.

Quite often, employees who are suffering the first signs of mental health issues do not have an awareness of why they feel the way they do.  MHFA empowers people to identify the first signs and therefore employers who are MHFA trained may well be able to assist not only in identifying when an employee is suffering from a mental health issue but also in guiding them to obtain external support.

Throughout my time as an employment solicitor, I have seen many examples of this and, in some cases, I have no doubt that the employer’s actions have saved an employee’s life.  Employees who have been supported in this way are likely to be happier in their work and more likely to show commitment to their employer.

Relevant employment laws: are claims less likely if there is help on hand for people?

The Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’) places an obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are suffering from a disability under the Act.  This could be an adjustment to hours of work, place of work or introducing an aid to assist the employee.  A mental health condition would amount to a disability under the Act if it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities.  If an employer fails to make reasonable adjustments, it risks a disability discrimination claim under the Act for this failure.

As mentioned above, a MHFA-trained employer will be better able to have conversations with employees suffering from mental health conditions.  This in turn will enable the employer and employee to work together to ascertain what reasonable adjustments can be put into place to assist the employee.

If the employee subsequently issues a claim for an alleged failure to make reasonable adjustments, the employer will then stand a far greater chance of being able to defend such a claim.  However, if an employee feels supported, they are also less likely to issue a claim in the first place.

Further details about MHFA training can be found at www.mhfaengland.org

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