• International Workplace
  • 6 December 2016

Mental health first aid: a new approach to workplace wellbeing

In early October, I attended a course called “Mental Health First Aid Lite”. Run by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, it aims to provide an introduction to mental health for workplaces, to develop awareness of the issue and gives you as an individual the first tools to start to deal with it.

In my mid-twenties a member of my team went home to discover his father had taken his own life. I was obviously horrified and sent him off on compassionate leave. On returning to work, his attendance was erratic, his work substandard and I did not have the training or awareness to understand that he was struggling with his mental health. Here in my forties (having passed through a little sturm und drang myself of course!), the signs of someone dealing with depression or anxiety are much clearer and I have developed much greater tools for understanding and assisting.

Heather Beach

We’ve all heard the phrase “For far too long the profession has whispered health and shouted safety”. Campaigning inside the profession for health to move up the agenda has seen a great focus on the occupational hygiene aspects of health – the long latency diseases caused by silica, asbestos and the like – those which still kill more than 13,000 people a year.

So where does mental health sit? With HR who will certainly deal with the fallout when things go wrong? With senior management generally? With health and safety? The answer is all of the above of course, but there is a real opportunity for health and safety to show leadership here, in an area which is not compliance focused but definitely has a business benefit argument and of course ticks the ethics boxes.

Business benefit

For a long time, health and safety (or should I say safety) was tackled as a compliance issue and still is in many places. More recently the business benefits of belonging to an organisation which takes safety seriously have been recognised as well as the terrible brand damage (to the point of organisational destruction) which can occur from having ignored it.

Norman Lamb MP has tabled a motion that the First Aid Regulations be amended to take in mental health – a proposal which could indeed be a game changer, but meantime, let’s focus on the clear business benefits of creating an organisation which has employees who thrive rather than just survive.

There are 70 million sick days a year directly attributable to mental health issues – that is without the anxiety and depression masquerading as a bad back or a cold. The HSE in 2015 reported that “stress” accounted for 35% of all ill health cases that year. Additionally, there is the problem of presenteeism – coming to work when you are not really well because the culture demands it. The Centre for Mental Health in 2010 estimated that this accounts for 1.5 times more lost productivity than absences.

It isn’t hard to see how an organisation in which individuals thrive, feel appreciated and are able to talk to their manager about stress is one which is going to be far more attractive to be employed by and to stay in, than the opposite. That at the same time business costs related to sickness and absence will reduce and productivity will improve.

Conversely 94% of business leaders admitted to prejudice against people with mental health issues in their organisation and 49% of employees would not talk to their manager about a mental health issue.

Mental Health First Aid

Mental Health First Aid courses can be an excellent way to start to raise awareness and develop champions within the business.

MHFA England encourage training as many members of the management team as possible in at least an awareness of the issue. They now have over 1,000 individuals trained to deliver this course (which costs from £69 to £200 dependent on whether you want a half day, full day or two day course) and over 150,000 people have now been trained.

It was the half day course which I attended and it is essentially a flavour of the full two days, highlighting the size of the issue and giving some food for thought on how you might deal with it. As well as some new facts and figures which I had not known. Particularly interesting for me was how to ask someone if they had considered taking their own life as well as a practical exercise involved in uncovering all the prejudices we have towards mental illness.

It is incredibly heartening to see how the construction industry is particularly embracing this training. It has been reported that those working in construction are six times more likely to die from suicide than from falling from height. It is very positive to see the Mates in Mind programme being promoted by the Construction Health Leaders group (very much led by our health and safety leaders in this country). This was driven initially by Martin Coyd, who is also an MHFA instructor.

This guest blog is an excerpt from an original article by Heather Beach published in Safety & Health Practitioner Online. You can read the full article at: