Do you need mental health first aiders in your workplace?

Trained colleagues can provide a first port of call during a crisis, but not at the expense of a more comprehensive wellbeing strategy, says Alex Read

In recent years there has been a significant shift in the way we talk about mental health, both in our personal lives and at work. However, despite growing awareness of the issue, for many talking about mental health at work is still taboo. 

While it’s encouraging to see more employers making changes to normalise this, the reality is that it remains an incredibly complex issue – especially when it comes to considering how to support individual employees’ needs. So it probably won’t be a surprise to learn that mental health is top of mind for many bosses, with a recent survey finding that 62 per cent of HR, wellbeing and benefits specialists agreed that mental health was their board’s biggest area of concern.

The need for a strong emphasis on mental health in employers’ wellbeing strategies has never been greater and training employees as mental health first aiders is one of the many ways they can start.

Mental health first aid training bears some resemblance to physical first aider training in that it equips those who successfully complete it with the knowledge, tools and confidence to recognise warning signs and offer suitable support when someone is experiencing mental health issues, guiding them to get the right professional help. It does not teach them to be therapists or try to solve people’s problems, however. Rather, it enables them to listen, reassure and respond – even in a crisis. 

Mental health first aiders act as a first line of support for fellow employees. For instance, if a workmate is experiencing a panic attack, wants to have a chat about their mental health or is looking for advice on how to best approach someone else who’s struggling, they can help.

In my experience, the presence of Mental health first aiders in a workforce helps to raise awareness of mental ill-health, encouraging employees to explore and talk more freely about their own feelings and experiences and, in turn, helps to challenge misperceptions and create a more positive, supportive working culture. 

Mental health first aid training can also help the individuals who undertake it by teaching them skills to support their own mental wellbeing. I now enjoy greater job satisfaction and find myself being able to apply what I’ve learned as a mental health first aider in my life both inside and outside of work.

Over the past two years the number of businesses taking part in the mental health first aid training we provide has quadrupled, evidencing a considerable appetite on the part of employers for addressing this important issue. 

However, just having mental health first aiders onsite isn’t enough to support mental health at work properly – think of it as one of a number of wellbeing pillars employers need to raise to build a strategy that truly enables their people to lead healthy, active lives. 

Businesses considering introducing mental health first aid training to their workforce should consider:

  • Mental health first aid training can’t be a tick-box exercise. It needs to be part of an overall framework for employee support. 
  • It should be one part of bio-psycho-social support. Take a holistic approach to building your wellbeing strategy. Don’t overlook employees’ physical and social health.
  • Mental health first aiders need support themselves. Once they’ve completed their training, what measures will you put in place to support them? Regular get-togethers are a great way to refresh training principles, share learnings and offer mutual support. And keep the conversation going.

Alex Read is an accredited mental health first aid instructor, and health and wellbeing programme manager at AXA PPP healthcare