The increase in mental health support required in the workplace in recent years has seen the rise in popularity of training volunteers to be mental health first aiders (MHFAs), and the current COVID-19 situation is putting further pressure on this group of employees.
MHFAs are not immune to the stress that changes to working patterns, such as working from home, puts on their own personal circumstances and day to day workload. They will also be dealing with the varied concerns of their colleagues, including worries about families, finances, job security and the difficulties of social distancing.
Being an MHFA is an additional responsibility that individual employees decide to take on, but at the present moment they may be finding that an increasing proportion of their working time is spent supporting others. They play an important role in an overall health and wellbeing strategy of an organisation, but employers need to ensure they are properly supported too.
Practical steps that employers can take to provide emotional support to those who provide it for others within the workplace could include:
A buddy system – a one-on-one where MHFAs have a regular opportunity to talk to the same individual where they can build up a rapport and feel able to discuss how they are feeling.
A group session for all MHFAs where everyone has the opportunity to share experiences, best practice, tips and support each other, facilitated by a professional.
A secure online forum where issues can be shared immediately – sometimes waiting for a buddy chat or a group session means an issue can escalate in the MHFA’s mind.
Refresher courses can be really useful once someone has been in the role for some time and has experience of what’s required of them.
Monitor the workload of MHFAs and ensure that they are not taking on too much beyond the remit of an MHFA.
Offer MHFAs additional ‘mental wellbeing time’, where they are given flexibility to ensure good self-care or access to complementary therapies (We give our own nurses a number of complementary therapies a year as an important part of supporting their wellbeing.)
Most importantly, all MHFAs should also have direct access to a clinically trained mental health professional themselves, to discuss any difficulties they are having and to ensure that the role doesn’t take a toll on their own mental wellbeing. Ideally this professional would deliver all of the support needed as part of a co-ordinated service.
MHFA training provides guidance on setting boundaries, as the individual MHFA is only supposed to be a point of contact for employees experiencing a mental health problem so they can signpost them to help if needed; they do not replace the need for trained professionals. However, despite knowing many coping strategies, people who put themselves forward for these roles tend to have a kind, caring and empathetic nature and sometimes this means they may find it difficult to sufficiently distance themselves to stay safe and well.
There is no doubt that being an MHFA can be a very rewarding role but it doesn’t come without its challenges and risks. Particularly at this moment in time, MHFAs need to know their boundaries, when to ask for help and know that they are supported individually and collectively by their employer, ideally with access to professional support themselves.