COMMENT: We need better mental health support in retail

WHSmith's head of strategic projects Alison Garbutt looks at the importance of the retail sector coming on board to support the new "Where's Your Head At?" campaign that calls for a change in the law to protect mental health.

mental health retail

Getting our approach right when it comes to mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses and society right now.

According to the World Health Organisation one in four people will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that far more people experience mental health issues which may never be diagnosed or supported. We also know that depression, anxiety and work-related stress are leading causes of workplace absence alongside musculoskeletal issues, so we can no longer afford to ignore the impact this has on both human and financial potential.

Mental health issues costs UK employers around £35 billion every year. This is made up of a cost of £21.2 billion in reduced productivity, £10.6 billion in sickness absence and £3.1 billion in staff turnover. The Stevenson / Farmer review has further highlighted that around 300,000 people with long term mental health issues fall out of work every year.

While all industries are affected, there are particular impacts on the retail sector, where mental ill-health can impact employees’ ability to deal confidently and effectively with customers.

“We can no longer afford to ignore the impact mental health has on both human and financial potential”

So, what can employers do to address this challenge?

Mental Health First Aid

In workplaces across the country, the chances are that if someone becomes unwell or is injured, there will be someone trained in physical first aid on hand to help. But what happens if an employee has a panic attack, or is experiencing suicidal thoughts?

Ensuring each workplace has someone that can offer support if someone is struggling with their mental health is vital. It could provide the crucial opportunity to prevent an issue from getting worse and ensuring that an employee gets timely access to the help they need.

Mental Health First Aid is a training programme, delivered by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, that teaches people how they can help a person experiencing mental ill health or in a mental health crisis. In the same way that a physical first aider knows what to do should someone become physically unwell, a Mental Health First Aider is trained to offer basic support to help someone showing signs of mental ill health.

To ensure we do the best for our employees, WHSmith has been working to match numbers of Mental Health First Aiders and physical first aiders across the business. We have seven qualified MHFA instructors delivering the training, with over 90 per cent of office line managers trained, as well as the majority of store managers in airports, railway stations, bus stations, and hospitals. Work is now ongoing to train the balance of managers, including all high street and shopping centre store managers.

The feedback on the training delivered to date has been very positive, with a marked increase in people’s confidence supporting others who may be experiencing a mental health issue.

Changing the law

“Ensuring each workplace has someone that can offer support if someone is struggling with their mental health is vital”

While we’re making good progress in raising awareness and banishing the stigma around mental health among our own workforce, we’re also committed to working with others in the retail sector and beyond to normalise the topic and ensure that mental health is no longer a taboo subject.

That’s why we’re backing a new national campaign – Where’s Your Head At? – that is calling for change in workplace health and safety law to protect mental health in the same way as physical health.

Employers do have a duty of care to protect the health of their employees and that includes mental health. But currently, this doesn’t extend to first aid provision, as set out under the Health and Safety Regulations 1981.

The law needs to be updated to ensure equality here. If the campaign is successful, it will ensure that every workplace provides mental health first aid as well as physical first aid, helping those in need at the earliest possible opportunity.

The campaign, led by inspirational mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, alongside Bauer Media and MHFA England, is gaining momentum. Its petition has gathered 65,000 signatures in just under four weeks, with support from employers across a range of industries including the retail sector, as highlighted in a letter to The Times published recently.

Mental ill health is something that all employers need to come together to address. Bringing health and safety standards up to speed will help create healthier, happier, more supportive workplaces where every individual can thrive.

We all have mental health just as we have physical health and by supporting this change in law, we can give this real meaning in the workplace. We urge everyone in the retail sector to support this campaign – doing so will make a real difference to the millions of working age people who experience mental health issues every year.

Alison Garbutt is the Head of Strategic Projects at WHSmith

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  1. I think it’s superb what you’re doing! and please keep it going ….
    But what about the people who are ‘On the Edge’? and there is NO HELP!
    I worked my way through the ranks of SavaCentre since I was 16 years old. I got to Deputy Store Manager level of Sainsbury’s, and was unfairly dismissed by a BULLY, after 25 years Service (I won the case in court)
    I can’t take criticism now, and keep walking out of jobs!
    Suicidal Thoughts.

  2. Speak Up! For yourself and others. Talk to people around you, share how you feel, exercise, eat well, observe your thinking patterns and take good care of yourself. If none of these options suits you, seek help of a professional. Psychologists and psychiatrists are just a call away. Remember that every problem has a solution, provided you are willing to find one.

    Spread this and start being aware of your emotions.

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  4. I read an article that said that every fourth person suffers from mental disorders. Apparently I’m the second or third of four. Because I can’t even imagine how a person with mental disorder should look like. How does this manifest itself? Tell me how to distinguish a healthy person from the patient? I observed mental disorders in children. Children do not hide emotions. They can easily see deviations. And adults, thanks to their experience, hide emotions, although they are not always able to counter them! Interesting article, I will pay more attention to the people around me.


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