Why businesses need Mental Health First Aiders

Posted by Suzanne Marshall RN on 06/11/20 19:57
Suzanne Marshall RN


Our head of clinical governance, Suzanne Marshall RN explains why mental health first aid should be front of mind for leadership teams.

We’re in the business of helping large organisations maintain wellbeing in the workplace, so we’re acutely aware of the need to look after our own people.  Understandably, it can be demanding to be the first point of contact for our Members who are often unwell or distressed. However, staff in other roles, such as IT or account management, also experience the pressures of life.

We’ve worked hard to foster a caring environment at FirstCare but we’re always looking for ways to improve our practices. So, we’ve taken the decision to offer additional support in the form of Mental Health First Aid training for all staff – and not just our advisers and nurses.

When I announced this internally, I received a lot of questions. I thought it would be helpful to share a bit more information with you.


The growing problem of Mental Health

Most people recognise the importance of dealing with a physical injury or illness in the workplace swiftly and carefully. However, many don’t appreciate how widespread mental health problems are, or the impact they have on our ability to work.

At FirstCare we support members with a wide range of circumstances and our data provides a stark illustration of the scale of the problem that mental illness presents. Although short spells of absence due to ailments like coughs and colds have been gradually falling in number, longer-term absences have steadily increased since 2010 - in part, reflecting a rise in mental health-related absence.

FirstCare - Data showing Short term absences from work 2010-2020 

What is the role of a Mental Health First Aider?

Just like physical ailments, the sooner you can provide support with mental ill health problems, the better. And, just as traditional first aid is not an alternative for professional care, Mental Health First Aid is not intended to replace the expertise of psychiatric or psychological specialists. Above all the key to success is having the knowledge to identify when there’s a problem and to intervene in a manner that helps.

The role of the Mental Health First Aider is to support employees in the workplace who are experiencing distress. This support can vary from having a non-judgmental conversation with a colleague, through to guiding them towards the right support.

A Mental Health First Aider is taught a number of skills, including:

  • Recognising early signs and symptoms of mental health illnesses that are common in the workplace
  • The ability to have a non-judgmental, supportive conversation with people who need it
  • The confidence and knowledge to guide colleagues to appropriate professional support if they require it
  • Promoting greater awareness of mental health in the workplace and reducing stigma.


What is the impact of mental illness in the workplace?

Approximately 25% of people in the UK will experience a mental illness each year. In 2016, 15.8 million UK work days were lost due to mental illness.*

Our nurses have found that typically, people with mental illness are off work more frequently and for longer. In 2018, FirstCare analyses showed that, for the first time, the amount of time off attributable to mental health exceeded that for physical ailments.


In 2018, absence due to poor mental health overtook physical reasons

Depression, stress, and anxiety are the largest causes of sickness absence and mental illness costs the UK economy at least £35 billion every year. The cost incurred includes the impact of reduced productivity, and the cost of substituting staff members who leave their roles**


What is Mental Health First Aid?

‘MHFA’ teaches staff and managers how to spot signs and symptoms of common mental health issues, provide support, reassurance, and to guide a person to seek the professional support they may need to recover.

It’s possible to make a lasting difference in people’s knowledge and confidence around mental health with some simple workplace mental health training.

Mental health first aid training courses provide responsible employers with an opportunity to address the key issue of ignorance about mental health in the workplace.

Evidently, this is the right thing to do. Organisations that deliver MHFA are likely to have a positive impact on business profitability as well as improving the workplace for staff.


Are Mental Health First Aid courses effective?

It’s worth noting that mental ill-health presents a wide spectrum of symptoms, from anxiety through to self-harm and suicide. Early intervention might not immediately address a problem but it can usually prevent an individual getting a lot worse.

Taking part in a Mental Health First Aid course has been proven to raise awareness of mental illnesses, encourage early intervention to aid recovery, increase confidence in dealing with mental illnesses and reduce stigma.

Some studies suggests that improving workplace mental health management could reduce UK employers’ losses attributed to mental illness by 30%, collectively saving £8 billion a year.


Does an employer’s duty of care include staff mental health?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Employers have a legal duty of care to provide a safe working environment for employees. Leadership teams must take reasonable care to prevent personal injury that may arise in the workplace and this includes both mental and physical harm.


What happens if we ignore mental health in the workplace?

Someone with poor mental health may not realise it, and even if they do, they may be reluctant to seek help or might not know where to turn for care. In the workplace, there is still a great deal of ignorance around mental health issues, including uncertainty about how to recognise mental illness and uncertainty about how to react when faced with it. This means that those in need of mental health help and support do not receive it.

If they’re not informed, managers and co-workers may unwittingly exhibit stigmatising behaviours, which can be detrimental to a person experiencing a mental health issue. What’s more, by failing to respond appropriately to an employee with a mental health issue, an organisation may be liable for a legal claim or compensation.


Remember: Support is always available.

If you have concerns about your mental health, please contact Samaritans or NHS 111.


Sources: *Office of National Statistics **MHFA England and St. John Ambulance

Topics: Mental health, Absence Management, NHS, wellbeing, Leadership, nurse, Management, Illness, Absence