The idea of a PPE equivalent for mental health and safety was inspired between 2017 and 2019 whilst delivering mental health training within the construction and manufacturing sectors. PPE is about prevention, prevention of illness or injury and preventing litigation. Its purpose is to reduce risk and keep people safe and, in line with the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, provision of PPE is a legal requirement. It’s primarily about minimising the risk of physical harm with a focus on being proactive; no point in putting that hard hat on once you’ve been hit on the head and are unconscious or providing gloves after someone has dermatitis or a burn or that high viz jacket once you’re lying on the ground and have been knocked over! To make the idea of control measures, as defined within any risk assessment for health and safety, more relatable, and to normalise attitudes to mental ill-health, Mindshift offers a variety of organisational support that is based on areas found within the list below.

What might the equivalents of PPE for mental health and safety look like?

  • The high-viz jacket is saying SEE ME. The response is WE SEE YOU and YOU ARE SAFE. To be mentally safe requires a stigma-free culture that enables staff to be comfortable if they need to say, “see me” about their mental fitness and a workplace culture that acknowledges, understands, and supports mental difference.
  • Matching the right type of hand protection to the job being done is acknowledging that exposure to some products or heat sources can cause harm to the skin. The mental health alternative is acknowledging and assessing the potential for work-related stress by performing organisation-wide or individual stress risk assessments and implementing control measures to reduce it.
  • The availability of hand wash or emergency rinsing agents is ensuring that if an accident occurs despite control measures such as gloves or eye protection being used that swift action to prevent long-lasting damage can be taken. The mental health alternative involves providing support if work-related stress or mental distress occurs. This could be via access to an employee assistance programme, funded talking therapy or availability of colleagues who have knowledge and confidence to talk about mental distress.
  • Occupational exposure limits and working time directives are about too much of something for too long being a risk to health and allowing workers to stop before harm is done. A working environment that supports the need to relax, reflect, and recharge is the MH alternative.
  • Wearing a hard-hat, is acknowledging that we are not invincible, that we may be vulnerable if hit on the head. Provision of the hard hat is saying “things can go wrong, so, just in case, look after yourself and wear this”. The mental health alternative is an employee who implements self-help strategies and takes responsibility for his mental resilience as far as possible.
  • Toolbox talks typically educate staff about PPE use and how to work safely. Regarding mental fitness this could include following national campaigns, holding regular health promotions on mental health and displaying relevant resources in the workplace or on the intranet.
  • Access to Physical First Aiders in the workplace is a legal requirement as per the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981. The Act requires employers to “provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work”. In essence, trained staff aim to keep people safe and try to stop a problem getting worse until the professionals arrive, they don’t walk by and ignore the symptoms. Staff trained in mental health follow the same idea however their role is not to wait until a crisis occurs before stepping in. Many people have had no training in stress or mental health awareness, and many don’t know what to say or worry they could make a situation worse. Training related to stress and mental health increases knowledge, understanding and confidence and reduces stigma around this topic. Further this enables confidence to have a good quality conversation, to reduce the isolation and distress felt and, if necessary, to signpost to the professionals.

Parity of esteem

Parity of esteem is the principle by which mental health is given equal priority to physical health and was enshrined in law by the Health and Social Care Act 2012. The current lack of parity is evidenced in various research that demonstrates a life expectancy that is 15 – 25 years lower in those living with severe mental illness. My aim is to make the concept of minimising work-related risk of stress and mental distress easy to understand and to make it more relatable, especially within those sectors where physical health and safety and the usefulness of control measures and risk assessment is second nature.

The Health and Safety Executive is Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety and within its guidance documents aims to prevent work-related death, injury and ill health. This includes mental as well as physical health. Stress and mental health are one of the 3 health priorities that the HSE has been focussing on since 2016 as per their Health and Work Strategy. Many businesses continue to be reactive rather than proactive in their approach to managing work-related stress. With many employees feeling unable, to be honest with their employer about their mental health, this can lead to people becoming more unwell, being absent from work or attending work when not fit (presenteeism).

The PPE for Mental Health Series provided by Mindshift Consultancy offers a range of training and organisational support. Two brand new IOSH approved courses are now available for in-house delivery (virtual/face to face), entitled “Understanding and Supporting Stress & Mental Fitness in the Workplace” and “Performing an Individual Stress Risk Assessment: Why, When and How” under the licence of Mindshift Consultancy.

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