Mental Health First Aiders in the Workplace – The Pros and Cons

mental health first aider Welcome to this HR Blast from Jaluch. Mental health and mental wellbeing are hot topics in today’s world, both within and outside the workplace, with many organisations considering appointing mental health first aiders. If this is on your agenda, here are some of our thoughts from Jaluch around both protecting and supporting your business.

What is a mental health first aider?

 A mental health first aider is someone trained up to be the first port of call for employees who are struggling or worried in some way. They are trained to listen to their colleagues, and to spot signs of poor mental health in others. They are also taught about confidentiality and, as necessary, how to signpost and/or report risk.

A bit of background

According to Mind, one of our prominent mental health charity in the UK…

  • 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year
  • 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week

With statistics like these, it’s not surprising that there has been a real push to both educate managers and staff around mental health and wellbeing as well as consider initiatives such as introducing helplines/employee assistance programmes, redrafting sickness policies and engaging mental health first aiders.

It may come as a surprise though that mental health first aiders are not a legal requirement for employers, despite this evidence that common mental health problems have been increasing year on year since at least 1993.

A statutory duty…

There is a statutory duty for employers to risk assess the workplace with a view to understanding first aid needs. Then, as needed, to provide both a first aid kit and train up workplace first aiders. To date, most of those trained up by their employers have focussed on physical first aid such as dealing with slips, trips and more serious incidents of course. This approach is changing as we explain below.

Risk Assessments – do they include mental health?

From the Health and Safety Executive website:

“First aid provision must be adequate and appropriate in the circumstances….In order to decide what provision you need to make you should undertake a first-aid needs assessment. This assessment should consider the circumstances of your workplace, workforce and the hazards and risks that may be present.”

HSE advice in recent years has been expanded to ensure risk assessments include consideration of mental health

“Following your employers’ first aid needs assessment; you might decide that it will be beneficial to have personnel trained to identify and understand symptoms and able to support someone who might be experiencing a mental health issue.”

Just to be clear there is NO statutory requirement for employers to appoint a mental health first aider. That said it has been estimated that FTSE 100 companies between them have trained over 10,000 mental health first aiders.

Mental Health First Aid England, our national training body, believe they have trained 140,000 mental health first aiders between 2018 to 2019, the most ever in a single year!

It sounds like a success story doesn’t it, with an army of mental health first aiders in workplaces to support our employees.

Just a word of caution though…

There are numerous articles in the press on the topic of re GPs and mental health. There are four links below to some of these articles if you want to read more but, in a nutshell, what we hear and take from these articles is:

  1. If GPs, who are on the front line of our mental health care, say that their own mental health is not in good shape, are we confident that the staff we are training up as mental health first aiders are in ‘good enough shape’ to do the challenging job we are asking them to do? We are thinking ‘Duty of Care’ here.
  2. How long does it take to provide meaningful support if someone asks you for help? If GPs say 10 minutes isn’t long enough, then what are we asking of our inhouse mental health first aiders? Should we say that we expect them to spend in the first instance between 30 and 60 minutes with the person who approaches them? Or are we mostly thinking 5 mins whilst they are getting a hot drink? What is reasonable and fair to both employees who now feel there is someone to talk to and our first aiders who continue to have their usual role to fulfil? And do the managers of our mental health first aiders have any say in how much time they can release staff for to carry out this role?
  3. Who can our mental health first aiders actually refer their colleagues to, if even our public mental health support provisions are overwhelmed and unable to respond? Or are we asking our first aiders to just be someone who has time to listen and show empathy? If so, when will listening and empathy not be enough, only for first aiders and staff alike to find there are insufficient referral options available, causing frustration and stress for all involved?
  4. Numbers of people with Depression has doubled, however GP access and time to diagnose depression has reduced. As a result it is likely that mental health first aiders are going to see excessive demand for their support. Are businesses set up for that? Should we instead be looking at full time professional mental health support within businesses, rather than the part time, barely educated, barely supported mental health first aiders that are being trained up in their thousands?

As a group of experienced HR people at Jaluch one of our daily challenges is to not get sucked into the emotion, to protect ourselves from other people’s stress when they are accused of bullying, or being bullied, when they are having to make redundancies, or being made redundant etc. Our daily work brings us into close contact with strong emotions and we have to learn how to detach from those otherwise we would be unable to do our job.

If this applies to those in HR roles, and we take on board what doctors are telling the media about how they feel about supporting with mental health, how can organisations really protect their mental health first aiders from the stress, anxiety and emotional overload that is almost inevitable?

No business wants to be the first sued for breach of duty of care towards its mental health first aiders!

4 articles if you want to delve deeper!

Article 1. Growing numbers of GPs are quitting due to burnout. Six in 10 say their mental health deteriorated in the last year, and about two-thirds (63%) say they expect things to get worse.

Article 2. GPs like me can’t help mental health patients in 10 minutes – it’s cruel.

Article 3. I work as a GP and feel powerless to treat patients with mental illness.

Article 4. Depression rates have doubled but GP diagnoses have declined.

A clear understanding

If you start training up mental health first aiders, your staff, managers and potentially customers and investors/trustees will be pleased you are taking positive action around managing and supporting the mental wellbeing of staff.

However, we urge you to be really careful not to create problems by leaving your first aiders unsupported or overwhelmed. Most experienced professionals in HR would say they are ill equipped to deal with the mental health needs of the current workforce so are we confident that a few days training on mental health is sufficient to give them the skills to do the role of mental health first aider?

Just last week at Jaluch we heard about a mental health first aider who was chosen by her employer as the one who would be trained up simply because she cried during a presentation on mental health. She said that whilst she is empathetic to the support some of her colleagues need, she would not have volunteered and didn’t feel particularly well placed to support. This is not a recipe for success!

If the purpose of a mental health first aider is to be a point of contact for employees who are experiencing emotional distress or suffering in silence with mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety or depression… then anyone who volunteers for this role should be really clear about what they are stepping into and the demands this may place on them. No one should be nominated by their manager or a director. No one should be coerced into agreeing to take on the role.

 Our five top tips for success…

  1. Break down any stigma by having a senior leader champion your mental health initiative and actively engage with this at every stage
  2. Evaluate and assess the current support the organisation has in place for mental health issues and any referral mechanisms in place (eg an EAP – employee assistance programme).
  3. Have a clear job specification and guidance for the role of mental health first aider that is shared ahead of anyone volunteering for the role. Ensure that managers understand the role and the time it may take for any of their team members who get trained up.
  4. Appoint someone who will support the first aiders – similar to the ‘coach’ that all professional coaches have to regularly check in with. You cannot leave them unsupported or not be aware of the kind of, and volume of, issues they are facing.
  5. Be crystal clear about when you, the organisation, will intervene and ask a mental health first aider to take a break or step out of a situation.

And finally?

To hear a little about the role from the people undertaking this role, here is an article from BUPA.

We hope you found this HR Blast from Jaluch useful. Please do contact us if we can support with any of the following:

These sessions can be delivered either face to face or online (other than where indicated).

Jaluch can also support on an ad hoc or contracted basis with investigating grievances, chairing disciplinaries, development of line managers competence and confidence when managing staff, including remote workers.

We look forward to hearing from you – no contract required for HR Support. Jaluch is an independent business, and our mission in life is to provide practical, pragmatic support to minimise conflict and disruption in the workplace.

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