Is mental health first aid becoming a tick-box exercise?

Need to know:

  • Mental health first aid training is becoming increasingly popular, but there is a danger that it is incorrectly seen as a quick fix to a serious problem.
  • Employers should examine the end goals, and ask questions about how and why they are implementing the programme, to ensure they do so effectively.
  • Trained individuals should receive ongoing support, and the programme should be part of a wider strategy, including both benefits and communications.

With almost half (49%) of employers saying mental health is the biggest wellbeing issue they face, according to Towergate Health and Protection research in December 2019, and 69% of employees saying they would value access to mental health first aiders, according to Thomsons Online Benefits in October 2019, it should be no surprise that this training is a growing trend.

However, employers should be wary of implementing mental health first aid training as a simple tick-box exercise, or as a means of appearing to deal with the issue without really tackling the underlying causes.

A report by the HSE published in August 2019, Summary of the evidence on the effectiveness of mental health first aid training in the workplace, concluded that while this type of training helped raise awareness of the issue of mental ill-health, its introduction in a workplace did not automatically result in sustained actions or better overall management of mental wellbeing.

Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), also has doubts. “There isn’t really strong evidence that it works,” he says. “Everyone comes out of a two-day mental health first aid course buzzing, but if you go back six months later almost nothing has changed. They have forgotten a lot of what they learned and they have never had an opportunity to put it into practice.”

Clear objectives

This is not to say that mental health first aid is not helpful or effective, but instead that it must be implemented within a context and with an approach that ensures sustained cultural change, rather than in isolation.

Employers are more likely to make the training work if they are clear about the reasons behind it, and how to ensure the process itself fits with those objectives. This means asking a range of questions, explains David Prosser, head of proposition development at Towergate Health and Protection. “How do they select employees to receive the training?” he says. “If some employees have volunteered, are they the most appropriate ones to attend? How are those employees themselves supported with the additional demands that might be placed on them, and how should employers set appropriate boundaries and responsibilities for mental health first aiders?”

Employers must ensure that there are structured and codified support systems in place long after training has been completed. Sarah Lockhart, principal consultant, health and wellbeing, at Thomsons Online Benefits, says: “While many organisations do have regular debrief sessions, this is usually organised by the individuals themselves, with no clear agenda or advice in terms of development opportunities.”

For the training to have a real effect on culture, as well as those who receive it or benefit from the presence of first aiders individually, it is important to be deliberate about keeping the conversation alive, rather than letting the workforce forget about it as soon as the flurry of activity around the training itself is over.

Matt Law, employee benefits associate at Connor Broadley Wealth Management, says: “Giving a mental health first aider a slot to speak at [an organisation]-wide meeting or even just using the [organisation’s] intranet can help with promotion.”

Broad mental health approach

Employers should also avoid implementing mental health first aid training in isolation, says Dr Syed Zakir Abbas, chief medical officer at Unum. “[Employers] need to look at psychological wellbeing more broadly, as they generally do when considering the physical wellbeing of their employees,” he says.

For example, this could mean having mental health first aiders in each department or division, who are then supported by a broader network of champions, allies, and those who are aware of the issue.

Crucially, employers should not rely entirely on mental health first aid training, but ensure that it is one component of an comprehensive strategy.

As Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon, says: “It should be part of a range of interventions which will include general mental health awareness training, having the right policies and procedures in place, a focus on prevention through primary work-related stress interventions and tools and techniques such as mindfulness, fast diagnosis and treatment, and appropriate support in the workplace for those with longer-term conditions.

“Overlaying all of this is the workplace culture, ensuring that people feel able to speak openly about their mental health without fear of stigma or discrimination.”

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