First aid 2.0 for mental health

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With one in four people suffering with a mental health condition every year many firms are implementing ‘mental health first aiders’. But is this really the answer?

I can see positives to having someone designated as a first port of call for employees who are feeling unwell because of their mental health. The mental health first aider would be there to listen and point them in the direction of any confidential employee helpline or HR procedures, or simply be someone they feel comfortable talking to.

Mental health issues in the workplace are more prevalent than physical injuries, and this ought to be prioritised by employers. Having nominated first aiders may also help to raise awareness and remove some of the stigma that people often associate with mental ill health.

However, before installing a mental health first aider in your business it’s important to consider the risks and issues it could cause. Unlike a physical injury that occurs in the workplace mental health is complicated, nuanced and often very sensitive. It is not something you can fix with a plaster and some aspirin.

Basic training would of course be required for any mental health first aider. But unless you are planning to hire a specialist in this field how will the first aider know when something is so serious it needs to be escalated? It could place that person in a very difficult position if they feel they are assuming responsibility for someone’s mental health, particularly where the contents of that discussion would presumably be confidential.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently undertook a review of the evidence on the effectiveness of mental health first aid training in the workplace. While the study was limited it concluded that the training raises employees’ awareness of mental ill health conditions, including signs and symptoms. Those trained have a better understanding of where to find information and professional support, and are more confident in helping individuals experiencing mental ill health or a crisis.

However, it found there was no evidence from the published evaluation studies that the introduction of mental health first aid training in workplaces has resulted in sustained actions by those receiving the training or that it has improved the management of mental health in the workplace.

Rather than having designated mental health first aiders, a solution for some employers could be to send members of HR and/or managers on mental health first aid training courses. This would mean that those responsible for people management/HR in the business are trained on how to recognise possible signs that someone is suffering from mental ill health and encourage them to take proactive steps to support that person. Whereas first aiders play a more reactive role where it is up to an individual to approach them, possibly when things have already reached crisis point.

There is no easy answer to this issue. But it is encouraging that mental health and wellbeing in the workplace are starting to feature higher on employers’ agendas.

Eleanor Gilbert is a senior associate in the employment team at Winckworth Sherwood

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