Vicki Cockman is the Workplace Lead at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. For more information, and to access resources and guidance, visit mhfaengland.org.
Over the past decade, mental health awareness has accelerated, and more and more employers understand that mental health is not only a serious issue for society but for businesses too. The milestone Thriving at Work report revealed that around 300,000 people with long term mental health issues lose their jobs each year and that poor mental health costs employers up to £42 billion annually.
Attitudes towards mental health in the workplace are shifting, but there is more work to do to translate increased awareness into action. Thousands of employers are implementing mental health first aid training as a way of taking practical action. However, it is only one part the solution.
Taking a wide-ranging look at workplace policies is key to effectively embedding practices like mental health first aid and to designing a mentally healthy business. And it should be a priority. Investing in the mental wellbeing of your staff will help retain excellent employees, allowing business to grow while creating a more supportive, open culture. It makes sense, for your staff’s wellbeing and your bottom line.
There are five key steps to success in implementing mental health first aid:
1) Take a whole organisation approach
Mental health first aid training cannot be considered in isolation. It should be weaved into a wider approach to wellbeing and considered in the context of the organisation. Not every workplace wellbeing strategy will look the same. They will need to be reflective of the nature of the business and the workforce.
Organisations leading the way on this – big and small – take a ‘whole organisation’ approach.
This is about building the right culture and ensuring a mental health and wellbeing strategy is properly implemented. It means designing the stress out of processes and systems, putting healthy job design first, attending to reasonable adjustments, training, flexible working needs, fair and equal pay – and so much more.
Our Workplace Wellbeing Toolkit is a free guide to help employers on the first step of their journey. It is designed to help businesses lay the groundwork by raising mental health awareness and breaking stigma before introducing other measures.
2) Start at the top
We want mentally healthy workplaces for all and this starts at the top. From our work with over 20,000 organisations, we’ve seen the impact that strong leadership has in building mentally healthier workplaces. Clients we work with have seen culture shifts in their organisation when senior leaders open up about their mental health and wellbeing. It helps drives a culture of openness through the working environment.
Better awareness of mental health and education across the workforce helps normalise the idea of talking about mental health – and this works best when it comes from the top. Senior leaders need to lead the change so employees are empowered to seek help and support one another. When wellbeing and mental health is central to workplace culture, and backed by senior support, everyone wins.
3) Create a clear training policy
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England provides best-practice guidance on implementing mental health awareness and skills throughout the organisation, including guidance on recruitment and promotion of Mental Health First Aiders. This was developed in consultation with industry experts from Thames Water, Royal Mail and PwC and brings together a decade of experience delivering training into the workplace.
We strongly recommend employers use this guide to create and communicate clear policies.
These should clarify, for example, how much time Mental Health First Aiders should commit to the role and its boundaries. It is important to remember that Mental First Aiders are not professional counsellors. They are there for early intervention and to signpost those struggling to the right support, be that self-help, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or professional services.
When appointing Mental Health First Aiders in the workplace, it is important that the right people are trained. A diverse range of individuals should be represented at different levels of seniority, locations, genders and ethnic backgrounds. They should be people who spend the majority of their working hours on site and be able to maintain confidentiality.
Businesses must also consider how to keep their staff’s knowledge up to date. A Refresher course for Mental Health First Aiders and Mental Health First Aid Champions is now available to support employers in doing this. We recommend that staff trained in mental health first aid attend a Refresher course every three years to ensure they are keeping their skills and knowledge up to date.
4) Support trained staff
To perform their role effectively, Mental Health First Aiders must be supported to keep themselves safe and well. We shine a spotlight on this during training through discussions around self-care and in supporting materials and resources, including self-care toolkits and our employee guide. We encourage all organisations we work with to share this guide with their staff.
Supporting and developing Mental Health First Aiders in their roles is also key to embedding mental health first aid training in an organisation. Setting up a Mental Health First Aider network is a great way to ensure this happens. If possible, this should be overseen by someone with an HR background and the overall programme needs to have a named individual who Mental Health First Aiders can contact with any questions or concerns.
Alongside this, employers should remind Mental Health First Aiders that they need to look after their own wellbeing. They should be encouraged to take breaks or step down from the role if they feel they need to.
5) Measure the impact
We know investing in mental health pays off. Research conducted by Deloitte showed that for every £1 invested in workplace mental health interventions, organisations see an ROI of between £1.50 and £9.
This is reflected in experiences on the ground. A recent study conducted by academics from the University of Nottingham found that 91% of employees said their understanding of mental health in the workplace had increased after MHFA England training and that there had been real life impact as a consequence.
In addition, 87% said more mental health conversations were happening in their workplace and 83% noticed improvement in procedures for signposting to support – support people need to recover and stay well.
There are some simple ways employers can monitor the impact of training staff in mental health first aid skills. These include recording sickness and absences, attraction and retention rates of staff, uptake of EAP support, and the number of interventions or conversations that staff have with Mental Health First Aiders.
Many ingredients go into a successful workplace wellbeing strategy and mental health first aid is one part of this – it is not a panacea.
Just as physical first aid is hardwired into approaches to promoting and protecting our physical health, so should the same apply for our mental health. The prize here is a working world where everyone can talk openly about their mental health, seek support when needed, and feel empowered to thrive at work.