Why supporting the mental health of workers is vital and 10 steps you can take now

Matt Longley · 13 May 2021

What does the law say about mental health and freelancers?

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that “All workers have a right to work in places where the risks to their health and safety are properly controlled. Health and safety is about stopping you getting hurt or ill through work. Your employer is responsible for health and safety, but you must help too.” That right applies regardless of the employees’ status be they staff, contractor, freelance, visitor or volunteer.

The act also defines injury as including “any disease and any impairment of a person’s physical or mental condition”. Therefore, all workplaces must consider the impact of their work on the mental health of employees, regardless of their status. Additionally, under section 3 of the act, commissioners must consider the impact on their contractors and their contractors’ employees.

In the UK in 2019 according to the Health and Safety Executive, 54% of all time lost at work was due to work related stress and mental health issues.

In the film and TV industry we know that there is a higher prevalence of work-related stress and mental health issues as highlighted by the Film and TV Charity in 2019. Their survey reported that 87% of workers had suffered from a mental health condition versus 65% in the general population. More worryingly, 55% reported having had suicidal thoughts as opposed to 20% in the general population.

The Managing Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require a production to carry out and record a risk assessment for all work and to consider all who could be impacted by those risks. Given that work related stress accounts for 54% of lost time, a risk assessment for stress and mental health issues is required by law. The aim of the risk assessment is to consider controls to protect workers and other people affected by the production’s activity.

The attitude to mental health in the film & TV industry

In the industry, we often deal with distressing and harrowing content that may be triggering for some people. There are moves to protect the audience with warnings or contributors with support, but we are yet to sufficiently extend this consideration and protection to crew and cast. One of the first steps that has been taken to address the problem is for the Film and TV charity to set up their helpline (0800 054 0000). Additionally, some broadcasters and production companies have trained, ‘Mental Health First Aiders’ or first responders.

If we compare this with physical first aid the person in distress has already been injured, either by working on the production or by another factor which may be outside the production’s control. Thus far the favoured approach across the sector has been to put bandages on psychological injuries rather than attempting to proactively prevent them occurring.

What is the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) advice on stress and mental health?

Dealing with stress and mental health issues is one of the HSE’s top 3 priorities over the next 3 -5 years. The HSE advise that first response and helplines should be part of a wider, overall strategy for addressing stress and mental health issues in the workplace, but that prevention is far better than cure. So further work is required to proactively meet the legal duty of care and protect upfront the mental health of all workers in the industry regardless of their employment status. Since injury can be physical or mental, any risk assessment must include prevention measures for stress and mental health issues arising from work activities.

As humans are all a unique blend of genetics, environment and experience – stress and mental health outcomes for 2 people can be vastly different.  Some people thrive on pressure and remain resilient, others do not. There are also potential external triggers to consider which may be very personal. So, we can consider controls in 3 categories based on HSE guidance.

According to the HSE, collective primary measures to prevent stress should be given priority with the elimination or avoidance of stress the end goal meaning stress and distress are tackled at source. Once these primary measures are in place – secondary and tertiary measures follow to shore up the overall strategy.

PRIMARY – Global Prevention Strategy

Use of management systems, culture change, allocation of resources, creating a plan, work policies.

SECONDARY – Individual Prevention Strategy

Provision of training and awareness, specific job design, avoiding individual triggers.

TERTIARY – Individual Intervention Strategy

Employee assistance program (Helplines), First Responders, MHFA’s, Counselling.


10  steps  productions can take to comply now:

  1. Create a mental health policy to show commitment to all workers wellbeing
  2. Create a mental health plan including preventative strategies plus support. Tailor the plan for the production eg duration, size, content, context and each stage eg. Prep, Production and Post
  3. Conduct risk assessments early. Add actions to the mental health plan. Consider how everyone is impacted by: Content, context, existing illness, working conditions and stress
  4. Use anti-stigma campaigns to make workers comfortable to ask for help without the fear of dismissal
  5. Train all workers in mental health awareness
  6. Train producers and HODs to manage mental health effectively
  7. Ensure people know where to get help. Either someone on set or externally
  8. Deal with Bullying and Harassment effectively
  9. Talk, Collaborate, share and discuss – communicate with the whole team
  10. Employ a Well Being Facilitator to assist.

Producing outstanding creative content within a legal, ethical and sustainable framework should form the backbone of all employment practices across the creative sector.  The time is now for the industry to pay attention, adopt best practice behaviours and build working environments which proactively support the incredible talent, commitment and drive of all workers in the sector.

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