Employment Bulletin 

mortlock charlotteWith an increasing awareness and focus on mental health, Charlotte Mortlock, senior associate and Jordan Daruvalla, trainee solicitor discuss the concept of mental health first aiders (MHFAs) and how this role might be implemented by employers to improve employee wellbeing and manage legal obligations towards their staff.

What are MHFAs?

MHFAs are staff members who have received training to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and provide assistance on a 'first aid' basis.

The concept first arose in Australia in 2000 but there has since been a global movement with training programmes now existing in 24 countries and the concept landed in England in 2007. It was originally launched under the Department of Health: National Institute of Mental Health England but "MHFA" has since been launched as a community interest company. A variety of organisations now have trained MHFAs such as WHSmiths, Slaughter and May and Channel 4 and a number of case studies on real life experiences are on the MHFA website here.

Individuals trained as a MHFA act as a first point of contact for those experiencing mental ill health or emotional distress, and are able to provide early intervention through recognising and responding to warning signs and providing non-judgemental listening. They can then assess the level of risk and guide the individual to appropriate support. As MHFAs will have knowledge of and access to support, including emergency care options where necessary, they are also able to quickly respond in crisis situations. Whilst they are not a suitable substitute for professional advice MHFAs can provide an additional level of support in the work context.

What are the responsibilities of a MHFA?

In circumstances where a person makes contact with the MHFA or warning signs are spotted, the MHFA's key responsibility is to consider the most appropriate response to the situation in accordance with the person's best interests. This can include anything from suggesting self-help books and techniques to encouraging the person to seek therapy or medical/professional assistance. As the nature of the role is particularly sensitive and a mental health stigma remains, MHFAs should also be mindful of their duty of confidentiality. However MHFAs are also responsible for protecting themselves when performing their role so must be aware of how far that duty extends and in what circumstances disclosure to others (such as HR or a line manager) will be necessary. On top of this, MHFAs should not overburden themselves by taking on too much and should be able to update their training as they feel necessary.

What are the employer's obligations towards the MHFA?

Although the MHFA has a number of responsibilities, they are still employed by the company. Consequently, their employer has obligations towards them. Perhaps the most obvious is the need to provide adequate and regular training so that the MHFA is best equipped to undertake their role. This is often sourced externally [Do we have examples of trainers?]. Employers should also support the MHFA internally by, for example, ensuring that there is an adequate description of the role and clear assistance pathways outlined in an associated policy. This is particularly important given the emotional demands of the role and the fact that MHFAs will not be immune to their own mental ill health. A more general obligation on the employer would be to promote awareness of the existence of the MHFA role within the organisation. How this is done will of course depend on the culture and practices but awareness of it is essential to its success. This will also help to increase mental health literacy and normalise conversations across the business, making access to the MHFA a more natural step.

What are the benefits of having a MHFA?

There are many benefits to employers of having a MHFA, especially if this supplements a wider employee wellbeing strategy. As mentioned above, a specific role focusing on mental health will help to reduce workplace stigma and encourage employees to talk more freely about mental health issues which are experienced by 1 in 4 people every year. In a more practical sense, this is also likely to reduce sickness absences. Mental health is the leading cause in the UK, despite many employees masking poor mental health as a physical illness. Flagging potential issues early and offering support can help prevent or reduce sickness absence for this reason. Related to this, MHFAs can also help to tackle presenteeism where employees are physically present but less productive due to their mental ill health. Whilst a line manager may be closest to their staff and arguably best placed to provide the necessary support, they are often not the correct person to do so. We know employees are often reluctant to talk to their line manager, often fearing repercussions such as the line manager thinking the employee is not capable. A MHFA is an independent person who the employee can approach to seek support. The line manager may also not have the skill set needed in these situations. However, to optimise wellbeing support to staff, the line manager and MHFA should work together and complement each other's roles.

How does the MHFA role interact with employer's legal obligations?

Besides from the employer's legal obligations towards the MHFA themselves, there are also more general legal obligations that this role may help employer's to discharge. The most obvious is the employer's duty to ensure their employee's health and safety is protected, which includes their mental health. The provision of an effective MHFA within a comprehensive wellbeing policy will therefore improve the employer's position if any employee's allege that they have not been provided with a safe place of work or if they allege that this has led to a breakdown of trust and confidence (for example in constructive dismissal type cases). On top of this, depending on the severity of the mental ill health, there may also be implications under the Equality Act 2010 if the employee is deemed disabled for those purposes. A MHFA is therefore well placed to assess the level of risk in this regard and suggest any reasonable adjustments which the employer may be under a duty to implement. Finally, although not a legal obligation, the provision of a MHFA is an example of a good employee relations practice which will not only improve the organisation's reputation but is also likely to improve the productivity of its workforce.

For further information please contact Charlotte Mortlock, senior associate or your usual contact in the Foot Anstey Employment Team.

Tags: Employment and Pensions2018