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Mental Health at Work and Mental Health First Aiders

Mental Health at Work

Mental Health at work is something of particular interest to me. I had post-natal depression following the birth of my first child and struggled with it for approximately 3 years before I finally felt I had it under control. It affected all aspects of my life at home and at work and I am so pleased to see the upsurge of understanding and conversation surround this subject. So it was with some surprise that I read the findings of a recent review conducted by the HSE on Mental Health first Aiders in the Workplace, if you would like to know my thoughts, please read on.

The Emergence of Mental Health at Work

Wednesday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and I’ve been reflecting on the recent report findings published by the HSE regarding Mental Health First Aiders.

Mental Health is an area that has traditionally been overlooked in the workplace, regarded as something not work related and generally speaking, a taboo of society that people both in and out of work are reluctant to talk about.

Thankfully this is changing, but change takes time. We as a society, have started to shift our thinking and this is now starting to transfer into the workplace.

Considering the emergence of mental health at work as an issue now being discussed openly in the media and in board rooms, I was surprised by the recent review conducted by the HSE and its findings published in RR1135 – ‘Summary of the evidence on the effectiveness of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training in the workplace’ http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrhtm/rr1135.htm

HSE Review

The review centred around 3 main questions: –

  1. Has there been an increase in awareness of mental health amongst employees (i.e. all staff

employed by an organisation, including leaders/managers) receiving MHFA training?

  1. Is there evidence of improved management of mental health in the workplace as a consequence

of the introduction of MHFA training?

  1. Is there evidence that the content of the MHFA training has been considered for workplace


As someone who works in the field of health and safety and who has a keen interest in mental health issues due to my own experience with post-natal depression, it would seem to me that the review questions were ill thought out, and the subsequent report quite simply unhelpful!

The report found:-

  • There is consistent evidence that MHFA training raises employees’ awareness of mental ill‐ health conditions, including signs and symptoms.
  • There is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental ill‐health.
  • There is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organisational management of mental health in workplaces.

Are the Findings Fair?

Anyone who works in the field of health and safety knows how long it can take to changes attitudes. Every time I speak to a new potential customer, I ask them if they have heard of mental health first aiders? Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t. However, I haven’t met anyone that thinks it’s a bad idea! The point is, tis is still a new concept, it is filtering through but it takes time.

The review found there was ‘evidence that MHFA training raises employees awareness of mental ill-health conditions’ – this is a positive and perfectly logical finding.

However, the finding that; ‘there is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental ill-health’ gives me 2 main causes for concern.

  1. It strikes me that you can’t introduce something like this and expect employees to come flocking overnight. This must be about trust and it will take time.
  2. What exactly are the HSE expecting the first aiders to do, what does ‘help’ mean?

In relation to my first concern, for me it comes back to the fact that this has historically been a taboo subject and to varying degrees frowned upon. Just because you have trained staff to become mental-health first aiders, employees can’t suddenly be expected to confide in them. Many organisations will also have some ‘history’ associated with mental health. They may have dealt with it badly in the past and it will take time to gain employees confidence, and of course some staff are just going to feel uncomfortable talking about it.

My second concern relates to the role Mental Health First Aiders are expected to play. They are not health professionals. As far as I can see Mental Health First Aiders are trained to help individuals recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and help support those who may be suffering not to prevent it in the first place or treat the symptoms. I think the concept of help needs further explorations.

The finding that gives me greatest concern is; ‘There is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organisational management of mental health in workplaces.’ Is this the reason for having mental health first aiders – I don’t think so. Surely this is equivalent to saying that the introduction of traditional First Aiders has done nothing to improve the organisational management of injury prevention’. It seems to me a completely illogical statement.

I don’t understand how you can look at mental health first aiders in isolaton. Surely the introduction of mental health first aiders into the workplace is part of an overall strategy. A business can’t expect to appoint a mental health a first aider and for all mental-health issues within the workplace to fall into part of a well-managed organisational strategy, and I can’t understand why the HSE review would suggest that this would be an expected outcome.

Sadly, I think this report is poorly thought out and very badly timed. There is so much positive talk about mental health currently and we all need to jump on the wave. We need to give concepts such as mental health first aiders time to ‘bed in’. Let people become comfortable with the idea, give organisations time to build an organisational strategy and explore new methods. Fantastic new initiatives have recently been launched such as  www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk I have no doubt the HSE did not have the intention of creating negativity in relation of mental health, but I fear that could have been an unintended outcome.

Let’s get behind these strategies on International Mental Health Awareness Day. Let’s spread the word about Mental Health First Aiders, the Mental Health at Work website and the fantastic work carried out by Mind, The Royal Foundation and their partners. The business world is just waking up to mental health at work and in my view we should promote awareness and understanding as much as we can.

I for one will certainly be undertaking Mental Health First Aider training in the future, and signing up to some of the amazing courses offered on the Mental Health at Work website http://mhaw.uk.com/training/

If you would like to discuss mental health strategies in your workplace, Helen at Buzz is happy to talk to you about the area which is of particular interest to her. Please do get in touch

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