Mental Health First Aid empowering mental health conversations in the workplace

Taking place on Thursday, February 2nd is Time to Talk, a national day devoted to talking about mental health run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, in partnership with the Co-op. To mark the occasion, we interview Senior Research Associate Harriet Hay on how Mental Health First Aiders are valuable for staff to have safe conversations on their workplace mental health.

Now more than ever, we are experiencing increasingly open and honest conversations about mental health, particularly in the workplace. Talking is empowering and has the power to change lives, perceptions, and ideas. Mental health has evolved from a forbidden topic to being fully encouraged to speak out on and normalise. It is a welcome evolution as millions of people are affected in some way. According to the mental health charity Mind, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England.

The challenge is more than what to offer within workplaces that support mental health but how to identify issues, encourage conversation, and build trust. There has been a significant rise in organisations training staff to be Mental Health First Aiders, with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England training 132,000 people since 31 March 2020 – 77,000 of those are certified.

Training staff to become Mental Health First Aiders is an important step in increasing awareness and providing a safe space to express issues, concerns, and feelings contributing to declining mental health. Below, we speak to Harriet Hay, Senior Research Associate and one of five Mental Health First Aiders at Picker, on the value of Mental Health First Aid training.

What is a Mental Health First Aider?

A Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) is someone who has been trained to offer first aid support and recognise signs of mental ill health. MHFAs do not replace mental health care, but they can offer signposting to appropriate help and provide early intervention.

What barriers may prevent people from reaching out to Mental Health Aiders at work?

Although there are more significant conversations around mental health these days, stigma still exists: people may feel ashamed or judged, misunderstood, or worried that issues they are facing may negatively impact their work, employment status, or their colleagues.

It can be daunting to talk about things we are grappling with, especially to someone within a professional environment, but it’s important to remember that we all have mental health, and everyone needs support from time to time. People may not feel comfortable approaching an MHFA whom they work closely with, which is why it is good to have several people trained within a workplace.

What is the value of having Mental Health First Aiders within the workplace?

We spend a lot of our time at work, which can be a key source of stress and burnout. In our eagerness to impress, we reject the idea of saying no or even asking for help.  We may not even realise we are struggling until it is too late, which is why it’s crucial to have MHFAs to prevent anyone from reaching a breaking point.

Having trained MHFAs sends a message to employees that not only are they valued, but mental health and physical health are regarded equally in the workplace. Furthermore, it can help spark important conversations on mental health within workplaces.

One of the great things about having MHFAs is that they can offer a human connection – which is increasingly important now that many of us work remotely – in a less formal context. And that is the bottom line – giving employees options and choices in who or what to reach out to when it comes to their mental health.

Do you think workplaces are responding to the growing conversation surrounding mental health? If not, how should they be?

Whilst I cannot say if and how other workplaces are responding to the mental health needs of their employees, I can say that at Picker, there are many different places to go for support if we need it. MHFAs act as part of a more comprehensive health and wellbeing initiative that includes other functions such as HR, regular 1:1s and an Employee Assistance programme.

The last few years have been tough on everyone, and as an organisation that promotes person-centred care, I think Picker has successfully channelled this through the support of its employees. Picker’s flexible working model has meant that I can enjoy autonomy and a healthy work-life balance as I’m able to work core hours in an environment that suits me and my role.

We have had to think more creatively about how we can maintain the human connection element of the workplace, a particular challenge for new starters who have not had the opportunity to harvest those friendships and a sense of comradery.

To support staff engagement and encourage familiarisation, we have established groups dedicated to staff health and wellbeing, such as an internal staff forum and a Social, Wellbeing and Employee Engagement Team (SWEET). To round it off, there is nothing more important to growing as an organisation than the voice of the team. A biannual internal staff survey is sent to gain regular feedback from which the results are discussed, and feedback and action are taken where possible.

How do you hope that attitudes and behaviours around mental health might evolve? 

A lot has shifted in recent years and attitudes are generally more open and inclusive, with more legislation and structure to help protect individuals. Despite the growing acknowledgement that health is not just physical, we still have a long way to go.

The rise of digital has been a double-edged sword. While access to a plethora of information and resources is freely available, so is misinformation and misuse of information. It is a great achievement to feel empowered enough to take the first steps into looking for help and information, but quick self-diagnosis or labelling others can have damaging consequences. I would like to see more focus on tackling misleading content and helping people to recognise valid sources. Furthermore, it is crucial that people trust their gut and seek professional help.

Prevention will always be better than a cure, so providing people with the tools to help themselves is one part of the equation. Workplaces can continue to evolve by adapting to staff needs and offering flexibility where they can.

Talk to us about person centred care

Send us a message

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up