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Not a debate: mental health support at work is imperative

Ella Pryor

In January, a bill to make Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) a compulsory part of workplace first aid training requirements was proposed to Parliament. The second reading will be on 24 November when the House is not expected to sit, meaning the bill is unlikely to be taken further. 

But if it was, would it make a difference? 

A recent study found that 60% of employees are experiencing anxiety but only 10% are seeking mental health support. Deciding how best to provide support for us Frameworkers is always top of mind for Sheri Brissenden, our HR Partner, who believes there is no dividing line between physical and mental health.

“We challenge ourselves to meet employees where they are and support them in the way they need throughout their career with us. This has become even more important with the change to flexible working. For all its benefits to employers and staff in terms of greater freedom, the reduction of contact means it’s possible for someone to suffer in silence. It’s harder to raise concerns on Zoom and easier for worry or stress to build up." 

As the main cause of long-term employee absence, mental ill health is estimated to cost UK employers up to £56 billion per year. Doing nothing doesn’t help anyone.  

The “solution” assumption

This is where the MHFA course comes in. I have done the course and found it really eye-opening. I was trained to notice when someone might need support, offer an empathetic ear and signpost the person to relevant professional services if needed. 

A report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that there is no evidence that it is effective in improving the management of mental ill health. But I wonder if that’s a misunderstanding of what the course can do. It creates “first aiders”, not qualified counsellors, who would be able to improve the management of mental health. Instead, the aim is to provide a knowledgeable support network. 

Part of the problem is the language surrounding MHFA. Even within its title, “first aid” suggests that there’s a person in crisis and that there’s an easily accessible solution to help them. This implies that mental health is a sickness: that people are broken and they need fixing. Which is absolutely not what the course teaches. The language is too tied up in the language of physical health, which can create confusion and raise expectations of what the course could do.

MHFA can only be part of the process of providing support for someone. If any employee experiencing mental ill health is referred to the designated first aider, will the organisation assume they’ve done enough? Or will they understand that the employee may need ongoing support? 

Breaking down taboos

The point of MHFA is to give people an understanding of how to provide support for someone who needs it. And the HSE report found that there is consistent evidence that MHFA increases employees' awareness of mental ill health conditions. The more people know, the more they can help. Even just by sharing what they’ve learned they will contribute to the general sense of awareness across the company. 

Remote work can make it difficult for people to know who to go to ask for help, as going straight to a manager or HR may seem too official. Having designated, trained people to speak to will help to break down these barriers. Even if the employees who are trained don’t directly use their skills, the process of learning about mental health is invaluable and you never know when you may need it. 

Workplaces are increasingly offering mental health benefits and there are more and more companies like Self Space and Headspace offering a dedicated service for organisations. Including services like these as part of an employee benefits package spreads a clear message that mental health can be spoken about openly.

We have seen our clients embrace this attitude too. We supported IBM with an internal campaign where IBMers made pledges to their community, to support and uphold one another. Initiatives like this that give employees a voice are an important part of the journey to awareness and acceptance at work. 

Compulsory or not, MHFA would be a positive addition to a broader package of support, playing a vital role in breaking taboos around mental health. And, if you still need convincing, organisations that prioritise their employees’ mental health will save money, reduce absences and retain their staff for longer.

My experience of the course was so positive that it proved to be the final kick I needed to start training to be a counsellor. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it is a start. Just don’t view it as a solution.

As for The Frameworks? Sheri has summed up our approach.

“We intend to put the spirit of mental health first aid training in practice regardless of whether or not it’s taken further legally. Having the knowledge to be vigilant to employee needs and implementing MHFA best practices is an obvious imperative in the new world of work post-Covid.”