Talking about your mental health with family and friends can be hard. But it’s often even more difficult when it comes to work.
There’s the niggling fear your manager might think you’re not up to the job, or that your colleagues might negatively judge you for being honest and upfront about the fact you’re struggling.
Attitudes around mental health are thankfully changing, but there’s still a stigma that makes many people suffer in silence at their desk. In fact, a worrying survey by graduate recruitment app Debut, revealed that 70% of people would avoid speaking to their future employer about their mental health.
That’s why an initiative is encouraging workplaces to appoint ‘mental health first aiders’ – people who are trained to spot the signs of mental illness and step in when a person is struggling to cope.
Just like you’d expect someone to know how to treat a wound if you cut open your finger on a pair of scissors, a mental health first aider would be there to listen in a non-judgemental way and guide you to the right support.
Where did the idea come from?
Physical health first aid has been a legal necessity in UK workplaces for decades, but it’s only in the past 10 years that something similar has been created for mental wellbeing too.
The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programme originated in Australia in 2000, and is the brainchild of Betty Kitchener, a former nurse and counsellor from Canberra.
Now, MHFA programmes have been established in 25 countries around the world, including the UK, with over 2.6 million people trained globally.
While there’s currently no UK law to insist a workplace has to instate a mental health first aider, the concept is finally getting the attention it deserves, thanks to an increased awareness around the negative impact of stress, depression and anxiety.
Why is it important?
Not every manager will be comfortable talking about mental health. Or they might mean well, but will respond with advice that doesn’t help.
Even if they’ve never suffered with anxiety or depression first-hand, training a first aider means there’s at least one person in each office with an in-depth understanding of how poor mental health can affect you at work.
It also creates a friendly ‘open door policy’, making it easier to strike up that all-important first conversation.
Crucially, it’s also been a huge success with companies who’ve already invested in it.
Jaan Madan, workplace lead from MHFA England explains: “Organisations that use our training report improved uptake of in-house counselling services, self-help resources, and employee assistance programmes.
“This means that more people access internal as well as external support services at the earliest possible opportunity – something we know can make a huge difference in the long run.”
How does the training work?
Training usually takes place over a couple of days, and involves a mix of presentations, group discussions and workshop activities, to give you better awareness of common mental health issues.
The workshops also aim to help you understand the importance of self-care and how to better support your own mental health, so you can be there for others who need you.
As a first aider, your duties might include regularly checking in for a cup of tea and a catch up with someone who’s struggling, helping someone break down their to-do list so it’s less overwhelming, or assisting them to request time off.
As well as being on-hand to listen, you’ll also know how to spot the signs of an employee who’s on the brink of burnout, and know the essential steps to help them feel supported.
Where can I get trained up?
MHFA England training can be accessed by visiting mhfaengland.org to find a local instructor. They can organise small-scale or company-wide training programmes and packages to suit each employers specific needs.