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Speaking up for mental health first aid training

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

Chris Langer, scheme intelligence manager at CIRAS and BACP registered counsellor, explains how effective training can help break the mental health taboo in the workplace.

Organisations often appear to be making the right noises about mental health, but there is a mountain to climb to instil a culture that promotes open discussion. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training can provide the catalyst for the required cultural change.

We know that failing to address the issue of mental health is potentially very costly for society. For example, a report by the Greater London Authority in 2014, ‘London Mental Health’, indicated that “the wider impacts of mental ill health result in around £26bn each year in total economic and social costs to London”.

More recently, the Health and Safety Executive stated that “in 2015-16 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health”.

Paradoxically, those who need the support the most are often the least likely to seek it out. To rise to the challenge of providing the right kind of organisational support, greater compassion and sensitivity in tackling the relative invisibility of mental illness will be needed. MHFA is part of the solution.


Is the time ripe for MHFA training in your workplace?

Many organisations are proactively seeking to address mental health issues, which invariably surface in the workplace, through MHFA training.

Crossrail, for example, views MHFA training as fundamentally integral to its overall health and safety strategy. In effect, no distinction is made between mental and physical health. Their ‘target zero’ approach emphasises that everyone has the right to go home every day unharmed. This means going home mentally unharmed too. Other well-known companies such as Skanska, Channel 4, WHSmith, Ernst & Young and Wellcome Trust are following suit.

What all the organisations mentioned above have in common is a belief that there should be ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health. Workplaces typically have first aiders and first aid boxes, but provision for mental health issues tends to lag far behind.

Just ask your colleagues the question: would you find it as easy to talk to a member of your team who has been off work with depression, compared to someone who has been off work with a fractured ankle? If the answer is ‘no’, greater awareness and training are likely to be needed to give employees the confidence and skills they need.


The rationale for MHFA training

There is often no obvious way of discussing one’s mental health at work – at least, not until it becomes a performance issue. Once performance is affected, it can become even more difficult to discuss because of the stigma attached.

There is a common perception that bringing up stress, anxiety or depression may affect career prospects. In fact, a survey conducted by Time to Change (2014) showed that 48% of respondents would feel uncomfortable talking to their employer about their mental health.

Line managers are not always approachable in these circumstances. They may simply lack the skills and awareness required to handle the mental health issues presented by their team members. Other commonly suggested routes for employees experiencing mental health issues – such as talking to HR, or using an EAP counselling service – can be perceived as unnecessarily formal or distant.

This why talking to a trained mental health first aider can play such an important role in providing relief for someone experiencing difficulties. By design, the support is readily available in the workplace early on without the need for outside help. And talking to someone with the right skills can steer them towards professional help if it is required.



Spotting the signs that a colleague, or even ourselves, are struggling can ensure faster recovery. Early interventions demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the long-term health and wellbeing of their employees. They can also prevent costly situations from developing over time where performance issues or absenteeism are involved.

MHFA training is designed to bring about changes in attitudes towards mental ill health in the workplace. It can:

  • Kickstart the conversation about mental health issues
  • Raise awareness of how it affects people in the workplace
  • Reduce the stigma surrounding mental health
  • Help people spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health
  • Boost knowledge and confidence in supporting those in emotional distress
  • Promote early intervention to enable faster recovery and higher productivity


Where is your baseline?

It is important to establish the baseline for what an organisation is already doing in relation to mental health. This provides a starting point for rolling out MHFA training. To determine where the baseline for your organisation lies, these questions can be asked:

  • What policies and procedures are in place for managing absences?
  • What support is available to your employees? How often is it accessed?
  • What are the sickness absence levels related to mental ill health?
  • Is support offered proactively, engaging before the person goes off sick?
  • How are mental health stories shared within the workplace?

The last two questions on the list are especially important to address. Workplace support for mental health is often reactive, rather than proactive. Conversations about mental health could often be started well before any HR involvement is required.

Changing attitudes

The sharing of personal mental health struggles – for example, on social media or on company intranet sites – can only be welcomed. But a real change in workplace attitudes may be better indicated by the number of face-to-face conversations taking place in the office, or out in the field. Such conversations are vital to safeguard mental health, but can only really happen when people feel safe in disclosing their own struggles. People must trust their colleagues and the workplace before speaking up about their mental health. It is evident there is a long way to go still.


CIRAS reports

CIRAS has recently taken a few reports on the perceived lack of workplace support for employees with mental health issues. In these workplaces, the reporters felt organisational efforts to address mental health were falling short. This was despite the fact mental health initiatives had already been introduced at work.

There was a shared concern that those suffering from stress, anxiety and depression were not receiving the support they needed at work. The connection between mental health and safety was made clear in each case. The reporters felt poor mental health could lead to a safety incident.

It was suggested by the reporters that MHFA training for employees could effectively address many of the shortcomings in current levels of support.


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