Author Bio ▼

Heather Beach is Founder and Managing Director of The Healthy Work Company and has been running businesses in health and safety for over 20 years. Having run Barbour, SHP and Safety and Health Expo, she is now running her own business. The Healthy Work Company provides solutions which drive the wellbeing agenda to enable thriving in the workplace at all levels. Offering more than simply training, it delivers strategic support for your wellbeing programme. "We are driving the mental health agenda towards how human beings thrive in life – often through work, not in spite of it!" Heather can be reached on [email protected].
February 1, 2017

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Mental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals?


By Heather Beach

In October last year, I attended a course called “Mental Health First Aid Lite”. Run by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, it aims to provide an introduction to mental health for workplaces, to develop awareness of the issue and gives you as an individual the first tools to start to deal with it.

In my mid-twenties a member of my team went home to discover his father had taken his own life. I was obviously horrified and sent him off on compassionate leave. On returning to work, his attendance was erratic, his work substandard and I did not have the training or awareness to understand that he was struggling with his mental health. Here in my forties (having passed through a little sturm und drang myself of course!), the signs of someone dealing with depression or anxiety are much clearer and I have developed much greater tools for understanding and assisting.


We’ve all heard the phrase “For far too long the profession has whispered health and shouted safety”. Campaigning inside the profession for health to move up the agenda has seen a great focus on the occupational hygiene aspects of health – the long latency diseases caused by silica, asbestos and the like – those which still kill more than 13,000 people a year.

So where does mental health sit? With HR who will certainly deal with the fallout when things go wrong? With senior management generally? With health and safety? The answer is all of the above of course, but there is a real opportunity for health and safety to show leadership here, in an area which is not compliance focused but definitely has a business benefit argument and of course ticks the ethics boxes.

The world today

These days, mental health is becoming far less of a taboo topic. Someone in our friendship group or family will have suffered a major mental health issue and one in four of us will suffer with some issue related to our mental health each year (with the most common being anxiety and depression). Mental health issues are three times more common than cancer. Last year, stress accounted for 43% of all working days lost due to ill health and for 34% of all work-related ill health cases, yet 95% of employees cited a reason other than workplace stress for their absence due to stigma [1].

More than 6,000 people complete suicide every year – three times the number of men to women.

The scale of the problem in the UK is particularly heightened when it comes to self-harm – with the UK topping the European charts with one in ten people self-harming through for example cutting themselves or taking tablets [2].

Not only is the topic more acknowledged, but it is my belief that the world these days is organised in a way which exacerbates the problem – with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity leading us all on certain days to score too high on the Goldberg Anxiety Scale. It stands to reason that we need to develop greater personal resilience, and develop our nose for understanding that someone may be suffering with their mental health and our abilities to be able to deal with it.


Business benefit

For a long time, health and safety (or should I say safety) was tackled as a compliance issue and still is in many places. More recently the business benefits of belonging to an organisation which takes safety seriously have been recognised as well as the terrible brand damage (to the point of organisational destruction) which can occur from having ignored it.

Norman Lamb MP has tabled a motion that the First Aid Regulations be amended to take in mental health – a proposal which could indeed be a game changer, but meantime, let’s focus on the clear business benefits of creating an organisation which has employees who thrive rather than just survive.

There are 70 million sick days a year directly attributable to mental health issues – that is without the anxiety and depression masquerading as a bad back or a cold. The HSE in 2015 reported that “stress” accounted for 35% of all ill health cases that year. Additionally, there is the problem of presenteeism – coming to work when you are not really well because the culture demands it. The Centre for Mental Health in 2010 estimated that this accounts for 1.5 times more lost productivity than absences.

It isn’t hard to see how an organisation in which individuals thrive, feel appreciated and are able to talk to their manager about stress is one which is going to be far more attractive to be employed by and to stay in, than the opposite. That at the same time business costs related to sickness and absence will reduce and productivity will improve.

Conversely 94% of business leaders admitted to prejudice against people with mental health issues in their organisation [3] and 49% of employees would not talk to their manager about a mental health issue [4].

How do we address it?

It seems to me that lots of experiments and initiatives are starting to take place – many of them led by health and safety.  We should be at a stage where we can develop programmes which a) outline the problem at an organisational level b) create a plan to address it c) embed the learning and processes. Treat health like safety? Just like safety, it needs to be embraced at a leadership level to create a truly healthy, thriving culture. First and foremost, leaders need to look to themselves, as always, and examine and understand their own attitudes and where those come from.

Wellbeing professionals will look at lots of ways of measuring but, a look at sickness absence data should only be a starting point (given that depression often masquerades as a cold) and should be taken together with such things as employee surveys, benchmarking of quality of working life, sometimes even psychometric testing or 365 appraisals. This could be followed by a review of what resources are currently available to staff (employee assistance, occupational health, face to face support).


Mental Health First Aid

Mental Health First Aid courses can be an excellent way to start to raise awareness and develop champions within the business.

MHFA England encourage training as many members of the management team as possible in at least an awareness of the issue. They now have over 1,000 individuals trained to deliver this course (which costs from £69 to £200 dependent on whether you want a half day, full day or two day course) and over 150,000 people have now been trained.

It was the half day course which I attended and it is essentially a flavour of the full two days, highlighting the size of the issue and giving some food for thought on how you might deal with it. As well as some new facts and figures which I had not known. Particularly interesting for me was how to ask someone if they had considered taking their own life as well as a practical exercise involved in uncovering all the prejudices we have towards mental illness.

It is incredibly heartening to see how the construction industry is particularly embracing this training. It has been reported that those working in construction are six times more likely to die from suicide than from falling from height. It is very positive to see the Mates in Mind programme being promoted by the Construction Health Leaders group (very much led by our health and safety leaders in this country). This was driven initially by Martin Coyd, who is also an MHFA instructor.

What else?

I am delighted with the progress MHFA training is making, and would encourage any business to send as many people as possible on a course. It is, I believe a great first step. It is only a first step though.

Our attitude to our working life is impacted by so many factors. How at ease with him/her self is our manager? If they are not secure in their own skin, you will get the brunt of it. Indeed research shows that the largest risk factor in your wellbeing at work (almost as important as your relationship with your spouse) is rapport with your boss (Gilbreath, Work and Stress). Creating an environment in which everyone thrives requires self-knowledge and commitment from everyone involved. A coaching culture, in which we all manage our own egos. I would always advocate soft skills training, or facilitated team working in order that we all keep learning.

We live in interesting times, in which families and jobs are no longer necessarily for life. We all have to work much harder at being the best versions of ourselves on order to retain those things we want and attain more. Creating an environment in which learning is just part of the culture – whether it be Tai Chi in the mornings (as advocated by Karl Simons at Thames Water) or training managers to be coaches or Mental Health First Aiders, health and safety professionals cannot work alone in this. Whilst they may drive the charge forward, they need to also be collaborative – ensuring that HR, Facilities and senior managers are also part of the solution.

For more information on Mental Health First Aid training in your area contact [email protected].


  1. Statistics – Business in the Community 2016
  2. Royal College of Psychology
  3. Bupa 2014
  4. Business in the Community 2016.

Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

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Barbour EHS

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Terry CallanHeatherNigel DupreeAndy leachMental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals? - Recent comment authors
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Clive Griffiths
Clive Griffiths

Really good article.

It also helps to understand what is really going on with the individual – is it ‘Stress’ (too much pressure), or is it ‘Burnout’ (running on empty)? Both are likely to be happening in the same organisation, but the root causes and the symptoms will be different.
Ultimately efforts to increase individual resilience will only go so far. If the underlying organisational / cultural issues are not addressed, then increasing personal resilience just delays the inevitable – they will still succumb, and it will take a very long time to get them back.

Fraser Dalziel
Fraser Dalziel

Hi Heather,
Thank you very much for this article. It is indeed a tricky subject to tackle, and I noticed a further survey in YouGov last year. This found that a large percentage of people were unwilling to admit to their employer that they had mental health problems due to fear of driscrimination. I am struggling to find this again. Similarly for your references, are you able to supply the links to these surveys or articles to help me use these to support or give background to discussions?
Many thanks in advance, and I will look again for that survey.

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Simply the modern euphemism or catch-all for occupational health is now a now single word “Wellbeing”. Nevertheless, as we are still using a medically and psychologically inappropriate term Mental Health, that carries a range of discriminating associations in a far from inclusive and/or non-judgmental society manifesting in some seriously negative or anti-social stereotyping of individuals when, in fact, other than a formal clinical diagnoses of a personality or other mental health issue. Whereas, the generic work/life related “wellbeing” or even wellness in the “chain of causation” resulting in an employee presenting some degree of ill-health, harm or injury, will be… Read more »


Very interesting point Nigel I will bring this up with MHFA


Excellent – well said. How do we get this thinking into mainstream HR and H&S thinking?


We are at the beginning of a journey here. I am hoping that with the right information and support H&S will lead on it – in collaboration with HR. Wouldn’t health ibe easier to enroll the public in than safety?

steve paul
steve paul

all i can say is there are quite a number of people in the uk who need to man up, looks like the loonies are taking over the asylum

Roz Sanderson
Roz Sanderson

Phrases like ‘man up’ and ‘loonies’ are precisely the sort of unhelpful comments and labels that make people feel as though they are unable to ask for help when they really need it. The point of raising awareness of courses like this is to allow people to recognise when others might need support. Just because you can’t see it, and even if you don’t necessarily suffer from it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

Malcolm Griffiths
Malcolm Griffiths

The question is not about whether it is a problem or not but rather, is it a problem for a Company to have to deal with? This, like the ubiquitous “wellbeing” is nothing more than the Government trying to shift all of life’s problems, and particularly NHS cost, onto employers. Those in the Public Services are only too happy to comply with such – frankly – daft interpretations of Health & Safety at Work. Just send someone on a course; create a new post to cover it; poor, hard-worked HR – just add the cost to the tax bill. Meanwhile,… Read more »


I think we will wait in vain for the government to tackle it… So that leaves individuals who I believe do need to take responsibility for their mental health but so little is understood by the general public about how to manage our minds and for men particularly it may not be cool to consider – see the comment above robustly responded to by Roz!!! That leaves companies – who are part of the problem with uncertainty so prevalent these days. They Will and ARE suffering by NOT tackling it . Any company with a good CSR policy should see… Read more »

Malcolm Griffiths
Malcolm Griffiths

On that sort of Catch 22 basis, you could point anything and everything back to an employer, rather than correcting the shortcoming. That doesn’t make it right. But what you suggest is typical of how career safety specialists have been allowed to push the envelope, as a sort of self-sustaining, job creation scheme. You refer to uncertainty. The greatest uncertainty now is, as always, politically made – not least by the biggest self-inflicted wound ever perpetrated, on June 23rd. Offering a person work should never entail taking on such liabilities. It is ridiculous. Just in case you wonder, I write… Read more »


Well we certainly agree on the self inflicted wound part! I have to manage my anger on that most days… Mostly directed to the government who put party politics above the country’s interests. I suppose I should not be surprised. I am however a great believer in personal responsibility – and I do think ultimately it will progress in this direction. However there is such a massive hole in public understanding on this issue. I have been making a study of positive psychology over the last 10 years, have been through CBT for anxiety and depression, am an NLP practitioner… Read more »

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Even from school days it has always been interesting to note who responds most defensively to any particular suggestion, or in the playground and maybe workplace, that turns into a taunt or name calling and I have to say, in my experience, it was always those most embarrassed or fearful of the topic……… Anyway, as luck would have it, I have both had major accident and suffered from stress related illness along with working with excluded and/or offending youth along the way apart from having friends in a range of professions who have experienced workplace bullying so feel unable to… Read more »


I agree completely. And we are still like babies in the world of understanding how our minds can be made to function optimally and what to do to stave off anxiety and depression. What kind of therapy should an individual undertake? Is therapy even available … I know at my GP you have to be pretty much out on the streets or suicidal to get offered face to face support! It’s such a huge issue – but I believe progress will be made over the next ten years

Michael Seager
Michael Seager

With regard to mental health it shuld not be forgotten mental health issues brought on by substance and alcohol abuse , an education program for all employees that included access to confidential counselling and referals to clinical specialists as needed would be a start .

Mental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals? -

[…] Mental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals? […]

Andy leach
Andy leach

This article is fantastic ,the training should be compulsory to all companies in uk ,
My first step with being a director /owner of a construction/scaffolding company is to get our employees made aware and send them on the course please send more details to me .
Andy leach
Rad scaffolding services Ltd


Please contact me – I can deliver this. Was so inspired I am training in it! [email protected] thanks for the nice comments!

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Ok, perhaps in order to “cut to the chase” if, the primary actor is “fatigue” in the chain of causation of RSI type risks of injury to employees Wellbeing (Emotional/Mental Health) and MSD’s then, surely the sooner we establish reasonable “given” levels of exposure would be a priority prior to ratification of ISO 45001 2017/18? Classifying debilitating symptoms as “temporary” can no longer be an option to sustain denial and/or omission to act proactively where it is well known and the deficits are “predictable” in terms of performance and productivity. If, presenteeism, that is now growing exponentially, is to be… Read more »

Terry Callan
Terry Callan

Quote “So where does mental health sit?”
Evidently 0.5 or a couple of days will make someone competent to start dealing with a very complex subject!!
What happens when things go wrong based, on actions taken by a non qualified medical health person, whether it be management, H&S or HR? Surely mental health lies with competent people.

As far as my own experiences go, yes I have had to deal with serious incidents and provide leadership and the consequential fallout (mental and physical). Did I do it correctly?