Organizations are under enormous pressure to address a new epidemic of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and stress affecting workers across the UK.
It’s no wonder that many organizations are turning to ‘quick win’ tactics, such as investment in short training courses for employees volunteering to act as Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs).
MHFAs act as the first port of call for colleagues struggling with mental health, trained to listen, spot signs of poor mental health, signpost, and report risks.
Estimates point to there being over 100,000 MHFAs in FTSE 100 companies alone. Increased investment in MHFAs is often seen as a welcome step up to support better mental health. However, do we need to proceed with caution?
As unveiled by HSE research, “there is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organizational management of mental health in workplaces.”
The research suggests that whilst MHFA training isn’t doing any harm, is it actually doing any good?
By ring-fencing empathy and understanding to those ‘trained’ in it, organizations risk enabling leaders and managers to pass the buck of ‘support’ to their MHFA colleagues.
This might ease the pressure on the HR team who have often picked up what managers don’t want (or don’t feel confident) dealing with – but should we be concerned that an unnecessary burden will now be placed on volunteers, who, let us not forget, also have their own jobs to do and their own stresses to handle?
Who is there for the MHFA when the responsibility of being a team’s de-facto counselor gets too much? How are organizations ensuring they meet the additional duty of care to their MHFAs?
Considering the mental wellbeing of MHFAs
We see this in the mental health crisis’s effect on trained health workers.
If even our GPs, say that their mental health is failing, are we confident that the staff we are training as mental health first aiders are in ‘good enough shape’ to do this challenging job?
Most experienced professionals in HR would say they are ill-equipped to deal with the mental health needs of the current workforce.
So how confident are we that a few days of training on mental wellbeing is sufficient to instill the skills required of a mental health first aider?
This is not to say that MHFAs do not have a place in organizations.
As Professor Avril Drummond from the School of Health Sciences at The University of Nottingham, advised: “We found examples of excellent practice in rolling out the mental health first aid training where there were clearly strategies in place to support staff who felt confident in their role.
“However, we also found examples where staff felt unsupported and where, for example, they had co-workers contacting them outside working hours.
“There were significant issues around lack of clarity with boundaries and potential safety concerns for the trained person.”
As a HR director, I worry that MHFAs are increasingly seen as an inexpensive and easily publicized way to demonstrate action.
If you can claim to have trained an army of MHFAs, you may feel your part is done. And, often only for a few hundred pounds per first aider, assuming you ignore their reduced productivity given the time now dedicated to supporting colleagues.
But what about all the other tools at our disposal to help employees tackle poor mental health?
HR tech for mental health
Advancements in technology and digital solutions have opened up many opportunities, a myriad of options to help us track, monitor, support, educate and even motivate or inspire our employees.
Such platforms provide software to support with health, exercise, hydration – all of which are key to supporting mental health.
Even if your organization has not yet signed up, it may only be a few years before your computer starts sending you notifications if you haven’t taken a break from the screen or had a drink in the past hour!
One organization I met recently, had rolled out a branded wellbeing app to thousands of its employees who were all now actively engaging in inter-team and inter-function competitions around wellbeing such as the tracking of steps, increasing activity levels, improving the average ‘team heartbeat’ even.
All great ways to achieve better mental wellbeing through improved physical wellbeing.
Where technology has so many uses and benefits including enabling employers to connect employees to legitimate sources of support such as counseling, coaching, and specialist advice via apps like Slack, it is questionable whether training up more and more MHFAs is an appropriate way forward.
This is especially relevant when we consider that the same HSE research concluded that there is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues.
It did though show that MHFA training raises employees’ awareness of mental ill-health conditions, including signs and symptoms.
The win for MHFA training, it seems, is in awareness.
If this is the case, why are we limiting the impact of this increased awareness?
Surely all employees, managers, and leaders would benefit from understanding and recognizing mental distress?
One of the most rewarding courses I have rolled out in the past three years was a six-hour course, delivered to ten delegates at a time, to hundreds of line managers in one business.
An incredible financial commitment, but across the six months of roll out I personally witnessed the significant impact that improved knowledge, greater awareness and an understanding of how to support each other can have on a whole business.
Such a program, whether face to face or online, backed up with a great app for continued support would, in my view, be a fantastic approach.
The future of mental wellbeing
However, beyond the question of tools and tactics, we must also consider why mental health issues are soaring in workplaces?
From personal issues brought into the workplace such as financial worries, divorce, children, health woes to work-generated issues such as job insecurity, lack of flexibility, poor working conditions, poor leadership, bullying, and discrimination, we live in a world of heightened stress and anxiety which all lead to poor mental health.
As Hugh Robertson, Policy Advisor at the TUC says: “The problem is that many employers are using MHFA as their only way of dealing with mental health issues… by introducing MHFA training, they can say that they are doing something about mental health issues even if they are doing nothing about preventing stress-related illnesses such as depression and anxiety.”
In my own view too many organizations are using Mental Health First Aiders as a Band-Aid for a problem that is far too big for these volunteers to deal with.
My plea therefore to leaders is not to jump too quickly on the MHFA bandwagon.
Be honest about what may be causing your employees’ distress and what practical support is needed.
I encourage you to take time to reflect on the correlation between physical and mental health and investigate some of the tech options available to you.
Mental wellbeing is a challenge that will be with employers for many years to come.
We must remember that none of the causes or solutions are simple, so let’s set a steady pace, develop a range of strategies and then work hard to manage our employees’ expectations of what we can realistically deliver.