7th February 2024
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Workplace mental health first aid means more than just box ticking

By Clare Price, Director of Clinical Services at Onebright

For years there have been discussions about mental health first aid becoming a legal requirement in the workplace, but no Government to date has implemented a policy. It was good to see Mr Russell re-introduce a bill in parliament in January, but we have to remember that it is very rare that ‘ten-minute bills’ such as this one become law.

The one thing it has done is get us all talking and thinking about how to best support employees and inspire effective change for the benefit of individuals across the country.

Previous studies have shown that providing mental health support can save businesses up to £8 billion* a year, with 70 million workdays being lost annually due to mental health-related issues. It is clear that companies at executive level should endorse mental health first aid in their organisational culture with open arms, however, it’s introduction should not become a way to tick a box.

With the introduction of remote and hybrid working over the years, businesses have had to adapt how they support their workforce, especially those who may be finding it difficult to cope with their mental and emotional wellbeing.

What to consider when implementing mental health first aid

The role of a mental health first aider sits entirely outside the role of HR, or senior management. They act as the first point of contact for employees to talk to when experiencing a mental health issue, which then helps signpost the employee to appropriate resources, whether that be an organisation support such as a wellbeing service or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), or to their GP, the NHS or other recognised third sector and charity organisations.

The ease of accessibility to mental health first aiders is fundamental to ensuring that it can work for the entire workforce. It’s also important to remember that mental health first aid provides an opportunity to explore and learn from outcomes for employees. Recording the outcomes on a confidential basis helps organisations to have a more structured approach to the mental health provisions they offer, and measure how appropriate and effective they are.

The process should not be rushed, and businesses should also take the opportunity to explore upskilling members of staff and introducing training in mental health first aid.

The responsibilities of a mental health first aider

Mental health first aiders have a responsibility to be aligned with the company’s overall business and wellbeing strategy and senior team, but they should also ensure they are a trusted port of call for any employee who needs their help and support. Some of their other responsibilities include:

Spotting and responding to the signs of mental ill health

●      Mental health first aiders are trained to spot the early signs and symptoms of mental ill-health in the workplace.

●      Being able to hold supportive, professional conversations with a person who has shown signs they may be experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress, alongside the ability to listen to the person non-judgmentally is fundamental to the role.

Encourage employees to seek support and set boundaries

●      Mental health first aiders should encourage the person to employ self-help strategies or reach out to appropriate professional support  , and if serious, escalate the situation to an emergency service.

●      It’s also important that they remain aware of their limitations, set appropriate boundaries with employees and be careful not become a crutch. Mental health first aiders must be able to guide employees to find the right support or treatments when required.

A duty to protect employees and reduce the stigma

●      Mental health first aiders should talk about confidentiality and what that means in terms of their role, maintaining confidentiality of the situation and the person whilst following the appropriate first aid reporting requirements. It’s imperative that mental health first aiders look after themselves and their own mental health while performing their role.

●      Through the work they do, mental health first aiders help reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace through support and education and acting as a role model in terms of looking after their own mental health. 

Mental health first aiders are not therapists, psychiatrists, or counsellors, but they can be trained to offer initial support through increasing their awareness of mental health, developing their skills in responding to people in distress, implementing the opportunity for people to access non-judgement listening and guidance. Mental health first aid is not about immediate intervention, but more about providing support in the moment to those who need it.

It’s vital that if companies consider introducing mental health first aid, that it becomes a structured pillar of support for employees, and that it intertwines with policies and other mental health and well-being provisions that are in place. Delivering positive outcomes in the lives of employees can help create a ripple effect for other businesses to follow suit. 

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