Mental health first aid (MHFA) in The Workplace

Mental health first aid (MHFA) in The Workplace

Mental health first aid (MHFA) is a must and generally accepted by many employers as a practical, relatively easy way to support employees with stress, anxiety and other mental or emotional health issues.

But it’s OK having MHFA in place but if it is not backed up with proper training, leadership and oversight it can do more harm than good.

Often, we hear of a ‘near-miss’ in the workplace, could be ‘almost’ a serious accident, someone ‘nearly’ got killed, but to think a close calamity only relates to physical health and safety is extremely naïve, as well as dangerous.

Is there such a thing as an ‘off the peg’ mental health first aid course? Well, they are widely advertised but the reality is, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to mental ill-health at work. Yes, there is a massive rise of workplace mental health awareness and for the most part, it is positive; raising awareness, educating people and reducing stigma can help everyone.

It is extremely important that all organisations, even tiny businesses provide individuals with the opportunity to proactively look after their own mental health and be able access professional support much earlier than they would normally. It is questionable whether many employers have the tools to implement constructive culture change and the contacts to refer employees should the need arise.

Is your workplace ticking time-bomb?

Is there a trained mental health and social care professional on hand, even at the other end of the phone, should the appointed Mental Health First Aider need to refer someone?

Do you know if there are policies and procedures in the workplace?

Does the MHFA (Mental Health First Aider) really understand safeguarding for individuals at risk of significant harm?

Perhaps the MHFA does has a certificate to say they have been on a course. This probably ticks a box for insurance, but have they really had enough training to deal with a safeguarding incident?

What if there is no existing policy or procedure in place, no experience of safely managing a critical incident. The MHFA certificate means nothing and the whole situation leaves both employer and employee at risk of a tragic incident unfolding.

If the inexperienced MHFA has no real guidance from their workplace how are they supposed to know the correct procedure in dealing with or preventing a near miss? and that near-miss could be suicide.

Imagine the impact this would have had on the MHFA’s own mental health, as well as the party concerned.

Any resulting investigation into the situation would have had dire consequences for all concerned.

Mental health first aid is now very visible, there more than 400,000 registered MHFA in the UK.  Does this mean that mental ill-health in the workplace has been addressed and resolved risk-free? Of course not.

If an employer puts people on a two-day course and the very next day places them back in the workplace with no structure, professional support or guidance on how to safely implement their new role, there is something wrong.

It would be wrong to say ignorance leading to overconfidence that a solution has been found to mental health issues in the workplace is potentially creating more risk than not having MHFAs in the first place. MHFA is certainly not perfect, but it’s far better than the stigma that arises from ignorance.

Mental Health First Aid starts with ALGEE

A: Assess for risk of suicide or harm.

L: Listen nonjudgmentally.

G: Give reassurance and information

E: Encourage appropriate professional help.

E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

With continued collaboration between all professional groups, including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), IOSH (The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) and organisations such as the BACP (the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), it should ensure the efficacy of industry research and concerns about workplace safety produce solutions to effectively address foreseeable risks.

At a practical workplace level, if an organisation uses an occupational health provider, then surely that service ought to play a pivotal leadership and oversight role, alongside the MHFA?.

It is fantastic that mental health is now far more widely talked about and recognised as a real issue in the workplace. “are you ok, no, are ok ok?”

There could be a real risk of employers misunderstanding the role of MHFAs. As mentioned earlier they are not, a one-size-fits-all solution to mental health issues. More importantly, MHFAs are not professional counsellors, and, crucially, an MHFA programme does not negate the need for proper policy, procedure and process to put be in place to accompany it.

If anything, the prevalence of mental health programmes being implemented in the workplace actually makes it more imperative that correct systems, training, leadership and support exist so that all parties fully understand their role and competence.

Alongside ALGEE there are five bullet points for implementing mental health advocates or first aiders effectively within the workplace.

  1. Clear communication. Clearly communicate on what the role of the mental health advocate service is and what it isn’t.
  2. An emphasis on compliance. Ensure you have a clear safeguarding and confidentiality policy and procedure in place.
  3. Robust recruitment. A safe recruitment process should be followed, taking into consideration the possibility that employees expressing an interest in an MHFA role may already have “lived experience” of mental ill-health or even an existing mental health problem. This can, of course, be a strength for the role. But it also means that, as an employer, it is vital you take responsibility for keeping them safe and that their own health and safety is at the forefront of the way any MHFA facility is set up.
  4. Effective, ongoing training and support. Supporting your mental health advocates or first aiders through ongoing training and support is essential to ensure they feel confident and supported in their role.
  5. Data collection and monitoring. Data collection will provide your MHFA service with properly evidenced outcomes. However, it may be self-evident but this is nevertheless important to reiterate – remember the data should be anonymous and The crisis plan taught in MHFA from suicidal through a and behaviours is to stay with the person or alert someone who can – so a person trained MHFA knows not to keep suicidal conversations confidential.

As medical First Aid does not replace a doctor but can preserve life, the MHFA does the same thing for a person who needs psychological or psychiatric support.

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