Concerns about use of employee volunteers to tackle mental health issues prompt new guidance

18 December 2018

Fresh concerns about how businesses use employees to support colleagues with mental health issues have prompted new guidance for bosses.

Mental health first aid

The guidance, released by the chartered body for health and safety professionals, assists businesses with designing robust mental health systems and highlights how ‘mental health first aid’ (MHFA) needs to be included in a wider system of support for employees.

Workplace MHFA is due to be debated by MPs in Parliament tomorrow as the Government faces calls to put it on an equal footing with physical first aid.

But IOSH cautions against an over-reliance on volunteer MHFAs as they don’t tackle the root causes of mental health issues.

Instead, IOSH argues they should be only part of a much wider business approach.Such concerns were raised following University of Nottingham research, which exposed “significant issues” with workplace MHFA implementation, and in a subsequent high-level round table featuring organisations including Mind and the Institute of Directors.

IOSH’s guidance is split into two sections: 

Using MHFAs more widely may ensure that they are better integrated into the organisation’s plans and activities that are designed to enhance wellbeing in the workforce.

Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at IOSH, said: 

“Mental health first aid and similar training courses are specific interventions that may be considered for managing mental wellbeing, but they don’t tackle the root cause of the issue.

“IOSH calls for a ‘prevention first’ approach incorporating MHFA as part of an organisation’s overall efforts to protect their workforce from mental health problems.

“Good mental health and wellness at work should be governed by a whole-system approach where OSH professionals, HR, and all managers contribute. 

“The real cause of work-related mental ill health is related to culture and the way an organisation operates. Only good management can change that.”    

Professor Avril Drummond, from the School of Health Sciences at The University of Nottingham, said:

“We are delighted that IOSH have moved so quickly following our research publication to produce some practical guidance and resources for the workplace. 

“The bottom line is that mental health initiatives must be both top down and bottom up: they must be a whole organisation approach.”

Mental health problems are a global issue and the economic consequences are large. In the UK alone, the annual cost to the economy is estimated to be between £70 and £100 billion, with around 15.8 million working days lost per year. The consequences for employers can include increased staff turnover, burn-out, exhaustion and presenteeism. There is therefore an increasing recognition of the need to address mental health in the workplace. 


Notes for editors

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is the world’s leading chartered professional body for people responsible for safety and health in the workplace. We have more than 47,000 members in about 130 countries.

We act as a champion, adviser, advocate and trainer for safety and health professionals working in organisations of all sizes. Our focus is to support our members in their efforts to create workplaces that are safer, healthier and more sustainable.

Our shared objective is a world where work is safe and healthy for every working person, every day. Through our 2017-2022 strategy, ‘WORK 2022 – shaping the future of safety and health’, we will seek to enhance the occupational safety and health profession, build strategic collaborative partnerships across industry and strengthen our influence globally through impactful research and development.

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