Lauren Bennett, Senior Researcher, Learning and Work Institute

The prevalence of mental health issues amongst young people is a significant and ongoing issue. 75 per cent of mental illnesses begin before a child reaches their 18th birthday.

Experiencing a mental health problem is likely to be upsetting. Mental health issues can impact on someone’s physical health as well as their relationships and work or education. Individuals affected report being unable to think clearly and feeling increasingly distressed and isolated

Mental health issues also have a negative impact on an organisation’s productivity and staff turnover. Mixed anxiety and depression has been estimated to cause one fifth of lost days from work in Britain and replacing staff who leave their roles due to a mental health condition is estimated to cost the UK economy £3.1 billion each year.

Apprentices face the challenge of having to combine working and studying. We know that working has many benefits for someone experiencing mental health issues. Effective mental health support can help learners to cope with this pressure and succeed. As opportunities increase it is important that they are accessible to those with mental health needs. If not, employers will miss out on potentially valuable employees

However, providing sufficient and high-quality support to apprentices is challenging for several reasons.

  1. There is significantly less funding per student for 16-19-year olds, compared to schools and universities. As David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges recently highlighted, this means that colleges are struggling to find the resource to effectively address mental health challenges.
  2. The scale and type of mental health needs experienced by apprentices is largely unknown. This is because declaration of mental health needs is low, making it more difficult to provide timely and suitable support. Although mental health is now more widely discussed, a greater cultural shift is needed to remove the stigma associated with conditions such as depression. Apprentices need to feel confident to share information with their employer and training provider.
  3. There is a lack of awareness of the available support and how to access this. For example, our research has found that limited awareness of the DWP Supporting Apprentices service was the main barrier to the service being used. Subject to an Access to Work decision, this service offers free support to apprentices (who have been signed off or who remain in the workplace) from specialist advisers. Service-users can access emotional and wellbeing support for up to six months, advice on workplace adjustments and a support plan.

However, all is not lost. Our research has also identified numerous ways in which support for apprentices with mental health conditions can be improved.

Here are seven things you could try, starting with encouraging apprentices to be open about their mental health:

1. Be positive about mental health

Having positive statement about accepting mental health on application forms and marketing materials can only be beneficial. Becoming a Mindful Employer is also a way to let staff and potential applicants know that your organisation is positive about mental health. If potential and current apprentices can discuss wellbeing during the recruitment and induction phase, for example by talking about their confidence and worries, concerns are more likely to become apparent.

2. Work trials and flexibility

Organisations should also consider non-traditional recruitment approaches. Work trials, rather than formal interviews may be less intimidating for someone experiencing mental health issues. Reasonable adjustments, such as offering more flexible working patterns, can also help someone have a positive experience of their apprenticeship.

3. Raise awareness of existing support and resources 

Alongside this, the range of existing support and resources also need to be better advertised and shared amongst employers, providers and apprentices themselves. As well as the Supporting Apprentices service, Mental Health First Aid courses are available for organisations and individuals, and websites such as Mental Health in Further Education and the ETF Foundation Online include useful guidance and learning opportunities.

4. Introduce these support services during induction

Such information should be advertised as widely as possible through social media, local training networks, mental health charities and industry newsletters. Discussing the Supporting Apprentices service during the induction process for new apprentices would also help staff and learners become aware of this support option.

5. Utilise the employer toolkit

Learning and Work has also developed the Employer Toolkit website to provide information and guidance for employers to support them to ensure that their apprenticeship offer is accessible. This includes case studies of good practice in supporting apprentices with mental health conditions.

6. Early intervention

If staff are aware of the support options and how to access them, issues are more likely to be addressed before reaching crisis point. Creating case studies of apprentices with mental health conditions succeeding could also help to raise aspirations.

7. Take responsibility

Promoting positive mental health and wellbeing should be everyone’s responsibility, not just one member of staff’s.

Apprenticeship providers should take a whole organisational approach to supporting to apprentices with mental health needs.

Apprenticeships provide a valuable opportunity for young people to develop their skills and take the first steps in their career. If we want young people to enter, complete and progress from apprenticeships we need to ensure that they are adequately supported so that they look back at their experience as an enjoyable and fulfilling one.

Lauren Bennett, Senior Researcher, Learning and Work Institute

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