Craig Burton: Why does mental health first aid matter?

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One in four people will contend with a mental health condition each year – and business and HR leaders must learn how to recognise the warning signs if they are to avoid the sometimes disastrous consequences of not offering workers the support they need.

While mental health challenges in the workplace are by no means a new phenomenon, all the signs point to it becoming a growing epidemic. New figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, reveal that work-related stress, anxiety or depression now account for over half of all sickness absence in the UK for the first time ever, with 15.4 million working days lost in 2017/18 as a result of the conditions, up from 12.5 million last year.

This is unsurprising when you consider that, according to a survey of 44,000 people carried out by the mental health charity, Mind, poor mental health affects half of all employees. Separate research from Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, meanwhile, has found that poor mental health costs UK employers £34.9 billion each year when sickness-absence, reduced productivity and staff turnover are taken into account. However, the real cost of not identifying colleagues who may need help in this area may be much higher – particularly when you consider that suicide remains the single biggest cause of death for males under 35 in the UK.

While mental health conditions may not be the direct result of workplace stress, colleagues can’t leave the challenges they face at the door when they clock in. We spend the majority of our waking lives at work – and it’s vital that individuals can access the support they need when they’re there.
With this in mind, it is crucial that HR teams develop and implement strategies to ensure that there is a safety net in place to catch workers who may be at risk of becoming unwell. And investing in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training for employees is a logical first step.

While it’s great to see that the government has pledged to invest in mental health in this year’s Budget – by promising an extra £250 million investment a year by 2023-24 into new ‘crisis services’ within A&E departments, schools, ‘safe havens’ in the community and through NHS 111 – employers and recruitment agencies do have a responsibility to support staff and contractors who may feel overwhelmed.

To date, around 185,000 people have received MHFA training in the UK, but we are campaigning for it to become mandatory for every business which employs 30 or more people to have a dedicated mental health first aider. Almost every company has assigned fire wardens and regular first aiders: if someone slices their finger at work, it’s a given that there will be the tools and expertise on hand to deal with it. So why is there not yet universal parity of care for mental health conditions?

A recent poll by the Institute of Directors found fewer than one in five firms offer mental health training for managers. Yet research by Bupa has revealed that the majority of people in the UK struggle to identify the symptoms of common mental health conditions, which can lead to delays in seeking treatment. While nine out of 10 people are able to identify the key symptoms of depression, and half the nation is able to recognise the most common signs of anxiety – including restlessness, a sense of dread or insomnia – 86% of people unable to identify all of the most common symptoms of Bipolar. A little training can go a long way.

In our own experience as a business, mental health conditions can have devastating consequences if not addressed. As a recruitment consultancy which manages contingent labour, we were rocked to the core when one of our contractors sadly took his own life last year. I cannot help but think that if one of our own team, or someone at the company where he was working, had been trained in MHFA, we may have been able to spot the tell-tale signs that something was wrong.

We have since come to realise that the rise of the gig-economy means that there is now a dangerous gap in care for non-permanent workers, who are most at risk of falling through the cracks amid uncertainty around who is responsible for the occupational health of these individuals. For this reason, it is crucial that organisations have trained professionals on the ground who are available to support all workers – regardless of which employment model they’re working through.

While we can’t turn back the clock, we have ensured that all our consultants are now trained in mental health first aid, and we are urging other businesses to do the same so that they are better equipped to spot the signs of workplace stress or anxiety. Frequent absenteeism, erratic behaviour or a fall in productivity may be indicators that someone needs help. Our people are also trained to listen, give reassurance and information, and encourage appropriate professional help as well as self-help.

Previous research from Mind found that over half (56 per cent) of employers would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing, but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance. MHFA training offers clear, practical guidelines through the ‘ALGEE’ model, with professionals taught how to: assess risk; listen non-judgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage professional help and encourage informal support.

Aside from formal training, there are other resources available to those who need them. The Federation of Small Businesses, for example, has published a guide on managing mental health in the workplace in conjunction with Heads Together, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and Mind, which signposts additional support materials as well as giving practical advice on building awareness of mental health in the workplace. Business in the Community, meanwhile, has produced a suicide prevention toolkit, which advises on how to identify who is at risk and how to respond to signs.

What’s more, the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) recent report, Front of Mind: Prioritising Workplace Health and Wellbeing, outlines some great examples of best practice around mental health first aid in the workplace. For example, Channel 4 was highlighted for its success in improving visibility of its MHFAs: its 70 plus designated professionals have balloons on their desks while digital display boards to flash up key stats and messages about mental health to make the issue relevant to everyone. For HR leaders who don’t know where to start, finding inspiration in those who are leading the way can be a fast-track to implementing meaningful change.

There is no doubt that employers have a moral duty to support the mental health of their workforces, but for HR leaders who are struggling to get buy-in from the board, the business case is certainly not to be sniffed at. The Stevenson Farmer Thriving at Work review, which was published earlier this year, reveals that 300,000 people lose their jobs each year as a result of poor mental health, costing the UK economy £99bn annually. However, as we know only too well, investing in MHFA has the potential to save not only money – it could also save lives.

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About Craig Burton

Craig Burton is Managing Director of The Works Recruitment, which has been connecting great businesses with great talent since 1991. He is also proud to be a Trustee of the Board of the Leeds Community Foundation, a Member of The Business Alliance and a mentor for business growth and development.

The Works Recruitment specialises in placing contingent workers and is championing mental health in the workplace, particularly with regards to the growing gig-economy, which is often overlooked in terms of occupational health. The firm is currently working in collaboration with the Mental Health First Aid Campaign, Thriving Minds and Thrive Law to promote this agenda and is lobbying government to make it mandatory for any business employing over 30 people to have a designated Mental Health First Aider.

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