Is it time your company invested in mental health first aid?

It’s fair to say that mental health at work has been trending lately, with the concept of ‘mental health first aid’ gaining ground. There are good reasons for this. According to data published by the HSE, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 49% of working days lost due to ill health in 2016/17. While stress must be distinguished from mental illness, this gives an indication of the scale of the problem. Consider also the fact that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall from height at work. It’s believed one in four people experience a mental health problem at some stage of their lives.

As we spend many of our waking hours at work and rely upon it for our financial security, our jobs can have a considerable impact on our mental health, both positive and negative. Work can make us feel valued and fulfilled, but it can also leave us feeling overwhelmed, insecure or bullied. And while work may not be a root cause of poor mental health for everyone (though it certainly can be), the sheer amount of time people spend at work with their colleagues means there’s great potential for people to spot the signs of mental illness and offer support.

There’s an obvious incentive for businesses to try and look after their employee’s mental health. Mental illness can not only lead to sick leave or permanent loss of skilled staff, but also a reduction in productivity. Unfortunately, given there is still so much cultural stigma attached to mental illness, and a fear of discrimination, many people are reluctant to admit to and discuss their mental health issues with colleagues or managers.

So should companies implement a mental health strategy, and if so, how? Mental health first aid has been gaining ground lately. The idea is that, just as many companies have people trained in giving basic first aid like performing CPR or tending to wounds, you can also have people who are trained in ‘mental health first aid’ to identify problems, offer support and point people towards professional help. The goal of mental health first aid training is to equip certain colleagues with:
  • An understanding of what mental health is and how to reduce stigma
  • Knowledge of common mental health conditions and how to spot symptoms
  • Tips on how to look after their own mental health
  • The confidence to interact with someone who is or may be experiencing a mental health issue, and the ability to handle this with the appropriate sensitivity
  • The knowledge to point people towards support and professional help
  • The ability to help someone in a crisis situation

Campaigners often call for mental health to be treated on an equal basis with physical health, and there are reasons why occupational health practitioners are well placed to take a lead on implementing a mental health first aid policy. However, for this to be effective for the majority of organisations, training and awareness needs to be implemented much more widely, with managers being a logical starting point. Employees often feel unable to confide in their managers, while managers are likely to be the first people to intervene if there’s a drop in performance.
Asides from offering help when someone has a mental health issue, there’s plenty employers can do to actively boost employee wellbeing too. Ultimately, a healthy, happy workforce is a more dynamic, productive and profitable one, so employers, HR teams and occupational health professionals should consider carefully how to look after mental health in the workplace.
Published inNews
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