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RetailTrust chief executive Richard Boland, WH Smith chief Stephen Clarke and British Independent Retailers Association boss Andrew Goodacre are among more than 50 business leaders to have signed an open letter to the prime minister urging that workplaces be compelled to make provisions for mental as well as physical first aid.

Theresa May has been a strong advocate for better mental health provision since she succeeded David Cameron as prime minister.

Now the heavyweights, who also include Weight Watchers senior vice-president and general manager Chris Stirk, business guru Lord Sugar and ex-prime minister Tony Blair’s former spokesman Alastair Campbell, have asked May to prioritise the government’s manifesto pledge to explicitly include mental health in the first aid regulations.

The signatories, led by Mark Watson-Gandy, Mental Health First Aid England chair and Paul Keenan, chief executive of Bauer Media Group, wrote that employers had a duty of care to their staff and while some employers were at the forefront of change, equalising their number of mental health first aiders with physical first aiders, none could be left behind.

‘Cost cannot be a reason for objections,’ they wrote, ‘because in the long run it is inevitable that making mental health first aid in the workplace mandatory will save money.’

Success would ensure employees across the country could access a trained staff member to receive initial support and guidance if they were dealing with a mental health issue at work.

‘Success will ensure every employee has the right to a mentally healthy environment. Success will mean we can finally break the stigma of mental health in the workplace,’ they said.

Government statistics show workplace mental health issues cost the UK economy almost £35bn a year with 15.4 million working days lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

But the cost is not just financial, because left untreated, mental ill health impacted a person’s relationships and ultimately their quality of life, they told the prime minister.

‘Requiring employers to implement some basic steps to protect an employee’s mental health would reduce these impacts,’ they wrote.

Fionuala Bonnar, chief operating officer at Mental Health First Aid England, said: “Today’s open letter shows that business leaders clearly recognise the need to support their employees’ mental health in the same way they do their physical health.

“The change in legislation we are calling for will establish a baseline for protecting mental health in the workplace, ensuring no one is left behind.

“This is just one part of improving approaches to workplace mental health, but it represents an important step forward. Ensuring that first aid support is there for the millions of people who struggle with their mental health every year will make a big difference to how we all think about our health as a whole.”

The open letter follows the delivery of a petition of more than 200,000 public signatures to 10 Downing Street as part of a mental health campaign called Where’s Your Head At? which has received cross-party backing.

WH Smith’s Clarke said: “At WH Smith, our employees’ mental health is of equal importance to their physical health. Every one of our 14,000 employees has access to mental health support and we are proud to have the same number of mental health first aiders across our business as we do physical health first aiders.

“We are calling for this legislative change, alongside many other leading employers, as we firmly believe that everyone should have access to first aid support for their mental health regardless of where they work.”