Championing Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

By Dani Mcnabb | News | 7 min read

Learning at Work Week is an annual event to celebrate businesses building learning cultures at work and aims to highlight the importance of continual learning and development, coordinated by the Campaign for Learning. Many companies use the week as an opportunity to evolve or refresh their learning and development initiatives and programs, reinforcing their commitment to continual staff development.

These activities can vary, but there is a form of training we have become very fond of here at edays and that’s Mental Health First Aid Training. In the last few months, 16 of our staff have taken part in the training and have found it beneficial not only for better understanding themselves, but also the needs of those around them. In this article, edays People Partner Ross looks at how MHFA training can help to expand your company culture, and potentially prevent burnout before it occurs.

“I’m hoping to help HR professionals put people into the heart of everything we do.” – Ross

In recent years, more and more companies have opted into training staff in Mental Health First Aid. While these can be very difficult and emotionally draining courses, they can often allow employees to understand the complexities of mental health, how to cope should they have their own struggles, and be able to support those who may need it. While it may be a difficult topic of discussion, the rate that people are driven to complete suicide is roughly 4.6 in 100,000 for women, and 15.8 in 100,000 for men.

Those figures reflect only quarter 3 of 2021 in the UK but are reflective of the population in 2021. It can be easy to draw causality from things like the pandemic, but it is still important to see how different aspects of someone’s life can make up a whole story. If you are completely burnt out, what hope does a person have in terms of prioritising and supporting their mental health without support? Fortunately, the world of work seems to be stepping up to the plate and understanding that mental health is a priority for everyone. Armed with Mental Health First Aid training and a positive learning culture, it is the perfect time for the workplace to become Mental Health champions.

The realities of MHFA

Burnout is real. It can be too easy for people to work themselves into situations where they can’t see past the meetings in their calendar. They become tired, irritable, and emotionally drained. Burnout has lots of different characteristics, some small, like a feeling of dread on a Sunday when Monday is around the corner, and others big, like an overwhelming emotional incapacity to do anything due to the strains and pressures of work. Burnout can then create a domino effect and impact other aspects of your life making people feel drained constantly.

Roughly 1 in 5 people will experience burnout during the time at work. If you have a team of 5 people in your business, this data suggests one of them is likely to experience burnout. If it happens, and if steps haven’t been taken to prevent or identify any burnout, they may crash and burn. Let’s imagine they go on medical leave. Now your team of 5 is 4, but that work still needs to be done and projects need completing. So, the baton is passed, and the rest of the team steps up because you have a value about teamwork that your business lives and breathes – excellent! But what happens to the wellbeing of the rest of the team? Their workloads have now increased and before long they all start to become burnt out too. It might not always transpire that they’ll go on medical leave, but you might have unhappy staff whose productivity dips, you may have staff that leave and create churn, and you may have a team who just dread coming to work and are working excessive hours. This in the long run doesn’t help anyone, including the business. What if we could do more to support our people with their mental health before it becomes a problem.

In the example above, a proactive business which is championing the mental health of their staff takes action before it is too late. This could have prevented that member of staff going on leave as they would have had the tools to prioritize their mental health. That would then have helped all the members of that team, keeping them happy, motivated, and proud to be at your company, as they know you’ve got their back.

Mental Health First Aid is not the ultimate solution to all your problems, but it can help give people the tools to look after their own mental health. Unlike other types of first aid, there is no legal requirement for you to have a registered Mental Health First Aider in the business. But, in the trend of people looking after their mental health, it can be a key milestone in ensuring that your business feels like you have their back, are open to conversations about mental health, and what that means on an individual level. I have seen some businesses use MHFA as a form of crisis control for when they’re at breaking point, but MHFA could proactively support staff long before they reach the end of their tether. Your MHFA should be someone in the business who people feel they can talk to openly about things that are happening and why they’re feeling how they do. Now, your MHFA’ers are not crisis teams or psychologists, but they will be trained in how to support people struggling, come up with suggestions to benefit mental health, and even how to release building stress surrounding issues. They are guiding people to the tools to look after their mental health, and a positive culture that encourages these conversations will go above and beyond in supporting the mental health of your teams.

MHFA and HR

I think traditionally in the HR industry we have been dealt the hand of problem solver, including issues surrounding stress, burnout, and mental health. HR does have a role in all of this, whether that is sick leave, grievance, or churn from burnout, but a culture can be created in a business where this doesn’t have to fall in our laps. Your MHFA team should be permeated throughout your business, touching all areas and all teams so the business knows there is someone who they know and who they can talk to. Then the role of HR changes to facilitating a positive learning and communicative culture, which supports both the training of mental health, as well as having open communication.

As any learning and development professional will tell you, the key to have success at any sort of training is having a culture that supports your delivery objectives. So, build out your learning culture, profile – MHFA, its benefits, and more importantly show people what you’re going to do with it. In the rush towards businesses supporting MHFA in the workplace, it could easily become a tick box exercise to say, “we do it too”, but it is what you do with it that is the important bit. Create MHFA forums, anonymous check ins, health checks with managers – whatever you need to so that MHFA is championed.

And then you have access to people who have had unbiased conversations with the wider business. Whilst you should always air on the side of caution and use anonymous information the best you can, could you imagine the positives of knowing a team is completely burnt out, but you can do something about it sooner rather than later? You could have happier, healthier, and more engaged staff who enjoy their time at work.

The figures I mentioned at the beginning of this article about suicide figures are there to demonstrate the massive problem with mental health and mental health awareness in the world of work. Now, I’m not trying to say that if every business gets and actively uses MHFA that those figures will magically reduce. But what if we could stop work being part of the problem? What if we could free up some mental capacity for people so that when life does knock them down, they have the strength to reach out to talk to someone. That is the impact that could change the world of work for the better.