Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid takes on mental health first aid

Confessions of a benefits manager

Big Bad Boss has asked me to train as a mental health first aider, which is a lot more interesting than the usual stuff I do. For example, my next task is looking at the lifestyle options on our defined contribution (DC) pension plan. Snore.

It would be nice if the mental health training was held in a nice hotel, the kind where they give you proper coffee and mini croissants for breakfast and then a decent buffet lunch to keep you going. No, it is an online course so I can do it in my ‘spare’ time. One thing is for sure, I am doing it in work time, and the DC plan review can jolly well wait.

The first thing we look at is the meaning of mental health and a learn a few statistics. I read that one in six people of working age have a mental health condition, and that over 10 million days are lost due to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety. That is not just in my organisation of course, but I am prepared to bet we are worse than most. The fact that I am being sent on the course suggests that we recognise there is a problem, but the cynic in me thinks we might just be ticking a done-something-about-mental-health box.


The next thing we do on the course is a self-assessment of our own mental health. I usually perform well in tests, but not in this one. I find my ‘stress container’ is over full, and I am more anxious than I ever would have imagined. Now I have seen the scores, I am a bit depressed too.

A key to mental health is having meaningful and satisfying work, I learn. I think about my next task of reviewing the lifestyle profile on our defined contribution plan. Well, it will be meaningful for our retirees but not all that meaningful for me. I am not satisfied with the help I am getting from our brokers on the topic, nor does it feel satisfying for me in any wider sense of my career. Another aspect of mental health is a sense of being in control. Yeah. Like that ever happens here. The only thing I have control over is my temper. Just about. All in all, my mental health at work is very poor. Sigh.


The next module looks at stress in more detail. Well, I reckon our Higher Beings, the executive management team, could teach them a thing or two about stress. Impossible deadlines? Check. Harsh feedback? Check. Unfair workload? Yep. How about lack of job security? Oh yes. The trainer encourages us to think about how we can reduce the stress in our own lives. I make a little list to myself. Big Bad Boss and my colleague Lazy Susan feature rather highly I can tell you.

Next up is anxiety. I will admit I have never really thought much about anxiety before, yet here am I responsible for wellbeing in this organisation. Bad me. This is where things can get a lot more practical. We learn various techniques for helping someone with a panic attack, such as encouraging slow, deep breaths through the nose and counting breaths to slow things down. I learn that it can be difficult to know if someone is experiencing a panic attack or a heart attack. The responsibility for that call is making me rather anxious just thinking about it.

Diagnosing depression

What we learn about depression is even more upsetting. If we notice changes in a person’s behaviour such as low mood, loss of enjoyment, or lack of energy, depression is a possible reason. Suicidal thoughts are also on the list. Gulp. While I will not be able to diagnose depression, I can help as a first aider by signposting information and local services. This feels fraught with difficulty as it would be all too easy to say the wrong thing and cause offence. Use of appropriate language is so important, and while the course is giving me tips, I do not feel this level of diplomacy is really my forte. I would be naturally inclined to tell people to just put their grown-up pants on and get on and do their job. Realising that about myself makes me feel quite depressed.

The trainer provides a full checklist of signs of mental ill health, which may be physical, emotional, or behavioural. For example, lack of care over appearance can be a sign of depression; I’m getting a bit worried about some of our employees now. Making errors or forgetting tasks is typical; looks like my colleague Lazy Susan might be at risk. Irritability or aggression can be a sign. Gosh, in that case the entire management team are in a bad way. I am beginning to feel I have taken on more than I can handle here.

Guide for managers

Luckily, there is a guide for managers I can distribute to spread the word. There is only one problem: the pdf runs to 54 pages. I cannot get the Higher Beings to read two succinct slides, so they are unlikely to cope with this. I can just hear Big Bad Boss asking me to create a quick guide and some FAQs so no one has to think too hard. Unfortunately, I am learning there are no short-cuts to this stuff. And now I am aware there are huge consequences for getting it wrong, both for employees’ mental health and for the company from a legal standpoint. As if I was not stressed enough already. Gah.

Sign up to our newsletters

Receive news and guidance on a range of HR issues direct to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

I may be making light of the training here, but I am not taking mental health lightly. It is crucial for organisations to safeguard employees by making sure that people managers, and everyone else really, have the tools to recognise when someone is struggling and to know how best to respond. I just wish it was not down to me.

Next time…Candid works on employee engagement