Seanad debates

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Health and Safety

10:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Health and safety in the workplace training has traditionally focused on physical safety but we need to develop a more robust training system for employees to help protect mental health in the workplace. Mental health care costs approximately €8.2 billion annually. The Mental Health Foundation's survey shows that more than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work and this may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems. Using Maslow's hierarchy of need going from the physical to self-actualisation, it makes absolute sense to prioritise mental health in the workplace. Many people are working longer and commuting more.They are balancing various life issues, including family, leisure, recreation, work and so on. It is extraordinary that the mental health survey found that more than one quarter of employees feel under pressure or depressed, one third feel anxious, and half feel irritable. We might all feel irritable but we can put in place measures to help improve that.

It is important that as we deal with various competing issues in our lives, we work with the World Health Organization and organisations here to promote and protect mental health in the workplace from the perspective of raising awareness and putting in place mechanisms and measures within the workplace to inform employees of supports available and to involve them in a variety of ways, whether it is decision-making, career development or recognising and rewarding their performance in the workplace.

As a former Chairman of the health committee, it is important that I continue to advocate for the proper development and management of mental health training for all employees. The Cathaoirleach has been involved in the farming community, and the issue of farm safety is one we have highlighted. This body had an important report done by Senator Conway on farm safety.

Mandatory mental health training in the workplace is vital to promoting the health of employees. It will help to create a more positive workplace and better outcomes for employees in the working environment but also in terms of family life and the home environment. It is critical that people are provided with information and training in the workplace. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this matter. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, who could not be here but who welcomes the discussion on this important area.

We continue to discuss issues of mental health in the workplace and training for people involved in that area. It is an area of high priority for the Government for many reasons, including those put forward by Senator Buttimer. It is important not just for work and economic reasons, which I will deal with today, but for all the other reasons. The benefits of looking after our mental health are vitally important. It is important that we have that conversation regularly, no matter where we work, but in particular on behalf of employees. The issue is rightly getting much more attention now than it got in the past, which is important.

Mental health is a priority concern for the Government, with funding increasing from €711 million in 2012 to nearly €1 billion in 2019, an increase of 39%. Training and education for employees in the mental health sector are provided by colleges through undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

There is no obligation on employers in the wider workplace to provide mental health training to their employees. Such training, however, can be beneficial to employees, employers and the overall economy. A 2017 World Health Organization report found that, at 6.3%, Ireland is in the top ten countries worldwide for the percentage of the population affected by anxiety disorders. A 2018 OECD report found that mental health difficulties cost the Irish economy €8.2 billion every year, a figure to which Senator Buttimer referred. The report states also that conditions like anxiety and depression are causing a 3% reduction in the country's GDP through stress-related absenteeism, for example.

To address this issue, the HSE mental health division funds various partner organisations, such as Mental Health First Aid Ireland, to provide courses that teach awareness of the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and how to provide help. These courses teach employees to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and to help colleagues and friends who might be developing a mental health problem.

Similarly, the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, is involved in a range of training initiatives around suicide prevention and mental health promotion. The safeTALK and ASIST suicide prevention programmes are available free of charge to all members of the community, and courses are run throughout the country. While these courses are not specific to workplaces, under the whole-of-Government national strategy to reduce suicide, Connecting for Life, Departments and agencies have agreed to implement the action on training of staff across the civil and public service in suicide awareness, particularly those who are public facing.

NOSP also funds NGOs, including Shine and Suicide or Survive, to provide work-based mental health-suicide prevention programmes. SeeChange is the national mental health stigma reduction partnership that provides training to workplaces. Its goal is to help facilitate a cultural shift in workplaces around Ireland so that employers and employees can begin to feel supported and secure in starting a discussion about the mental health problems that can affect each one of us.

A Vision For Change, the national mental health policy, is being refreshed. The revised policy has identified early intervention and training as a main priority. The revised policy will include recommendations to improve online training initiatives that seek to support young people in schools and medical teams in training, and that seek to target access by individuals in the workplace to individual and corporate mental health training. In addition, the revised policy recommends training to be made available to service users, families and peer workers to support resilience building and promote prevention strategies. All training will be augmented by Healthy Ireland promotion strategies where national health and well-being campaigns and initiatives will be rolled out locally, regionally and nationally.

I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this important issue, which is one we have a duty to debate while encouraging the same to happen in all workplaces.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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This issue does not come under the Minister of State's Department but I thank him for being here. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, on his work and productivity on the matter.

The Minister of State's statement that there is no obligation on employers in the wider workplace to provide mental health training to their employees is a worry, notwithstanding the large amount of work we have done, and are doing, and the improvements we have brought about.

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I ask, notwithstanding the work that has been done, that we would consider legislation to encourage employers to ensure that all employees receive mental health training as part of their employment. It is something we should consider as a Government, and as the Minister of State said, it would benefit employees. We have done a large amount of work through a variety of schemes and programmes ,but I am concerned that we are not making them mandatory. Given the need for a work-life balance and other pressures, proper training in mental health for their employees should be mandatory on the part of employers.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this important matter. I will bring back to the Minister of State the points the Senator has made on considering more ways to encourage best practice by employers and the need for training and discussion on this issue. I am not sure that legislation is the way forward, but I will mention that to the Minister of State to see what is the best way to proceed. There has been a cultural change in Ireland. It is important that, as a Government, we are part of that movement and that we fund initiatives to help with that.

Positive mental health is essential to fostering an open, collaborative, positive and healthy atmosphere in the workplace. The formal training I mentioned earlier, such as the programmes offered through the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention and those offered through NGO partners are effective tools in ensuring that employees are conscious of their mental health and that of their colleagues. It is of great benefit to employers as well as employees and will help create a healthier workplace environment. We should encourage employers to take up these programmes wherever they can do so. That is something we can work on in conjunction with Senator Buttimer.