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Mental Health First Aid: The myth Vs good practice

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

The world of work has changed irrevocably post pandemic. Whilst working from home and flexible working is great for some, it’s brought about issues around isolation, loneliness, a blurring of home and work life boundaries, lack of a team cohesion and bonding for others.

Add to that the uncertainties we are currently dealing with, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, it’s no wonder that the mental ill health of workers has increased.

Statistics show that at any one time, one in six people in the workplace experience symptoms associated with mental ill health. And 50% of employees have experienced at least one characteristic of burnout because of greater job demands and expectations, lack of social interaction and lack of boundaries between work and home life.

It’s no surprise then that mental health in the workplace is a hot topic right now. Many companies are seeing the benefit of training up staff as a Mental Health First Aider (MHFA), which is great. Although it’s not a legal requirement to have an MHFA as part of your team, we would definitely recommend it.

However, it’s not quite as straightforward as all that. Creating a MHFA role takes a lot more thought and strategy than simply sending one of your team on a two-day training course.

We spoke to some of our clients and found there is still some resistance to implementing mental health first aid within the workplace, mainly because many employers still think the role of an MHFA is to act as a mental health counsellor.

As you would not expect a medical first aider to perform surgery, the same goes for a mental health first aider. They are not qualified counsellors, and this can be stressful and overwhelming for the individual if they are perceived this way.

This seems to happen when a company approaches the role as ticking a box, simply training them up and letting them loose in the workplace without so much as a frequent check in. Basically just leaving them to get on with it. You can see how this could be a recipe for disaster and end up backfiring. It takes something for an employee to open up and admit they are struggling. No matter how much we talk about mental health, it’s going to take time for the stigma attached to it to disappear. Many employees still believe that experiencing mental-health challenges and performing successfully at work are at odds with each other. So whilst they may support the measures, not everyone wants to admit when they are struggling.

This goes to show not only how important a Mental Health First Aiders’ role is, but also how essential it is that they get ongoing support and training in order to be effective.

On the flip side, we find some companies waste time and money by implementing lots of wellbeing activities, offer outsourced coaching, or online webinars and workshops, but lack a central initiative or plan to tie it all together.

Again, this ticks a box. From the outside it looks as the company is supporting its employees, but when the measures lack coordination or direction, it’s ineffective and what ends up happening is your employees will not be aware or even utilise the services. Often we find that even with initiatives in place, a workforce may not come forward and access the support. And in the worst case scenario, will treat the MHFA as a counsellor, as mentioned above, which does not work for the MHFA or the employee who needs help.

So what does an Mental Health First Aider do exactly and what’s good practice?

Look at your MHFA as the first point of contact for someone needing support. They are there to listen and sign post individuals towards further support and advocate for good practices within your workplace.

Although as a culture we are talking about mental health more, many still find it difficult to speak up and admit they are struggling. An MHFA can offer immediate workplace support when approached, and just as importantly, should be trained to know how to spot the signs someone is struggling. This has to be handled correctly and with integrity before they step in and offer help.

However, they are most effective when implemented with a wider wellbeing and mental health strategy and tactical support system.

Working with management, your MHFA can champion wellbeing and mental health initiatives. They can be the ones who advocate for good practice and highlight initiatives that are needed or make suggestions on where you can improve. For this to happen means an ongoing investment of resources from the top. This could mean the culture of your workplace needs to change in order to support this, and it could take time.

What you can do to support your employees

Having a mental health and wellbeing strategy across your company, with a fully trained and supported MHFA, will show your commitment to the wellbeing of your staff. Long-term, this breeds a positive workplace where all feel not only listened to, but supported. It gives the message that you take your employees’ mental health and wellbeing seriously and recognize that performance at work can be affected by things going on in your employees’ personal lives and external world events.

It will take time for your workforce to recognise and trust these initiatives, that’s why at KUUTCH we offer a robust Mental Health First Aid Business Model consultation that thinks about the role of a MHFA as a lifecycle.

We will not only work with you to create and attract the right candidates, interview and hire and train. We will be there for ongoing support for your MHFA and work at a senior level to support and expand your mental health and wellness initiative.

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