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Mental health first aiders are not a panacea for our wellbeing woes

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Mental health first aiders cannot be used as the sole solution for organisations looking to create a successful culture of wellbeing. It takes a holistic approach to ensure a well-rounded policy is in place.

25th Jan 2023
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If you have been keeping an eye on wellbeing strategies as they have evolved across organisations in recent years, you will likely have spotted the introduction of ‘mental health first aiders’ into the agenda. 

You may also have noticed that it has been the case time and again that companies will invest a considerable amount of money and time in training staff to become the organisation or team’s dedicated mental health first aider. However, these people can end up being hardly ever, if at all, approached by other employees for mental health support. 

Mental health first aiders cannot be truly effective unless they are recruited with clear objectives and expectations within their lane

If you have a mental health first aider in your organisation, ask yourself whether has it ever crossed your mind to approach them at a time when you have struggled with mental health. Often, the answer is no, and the valuable time and money used to train these individuals are not utilised even remotely enough to make a difference in the wellbeing of the workforce.

Crucially, this is why companies cannot and must not view installing mental health first aiders into their organisations as the only avenue to help the mental health and wellbeing agenda within their business.

What is a mental health first aider?

To give a bit of context, a mental health first aider is trained to recognise warning signs of mental ill health, and develop the skills and confidence to approach and support someone who may be struggling, and then empower them to access the relevant support.

For businesses, installing mental health first aiders is sometimes viewed as a ‘tick-box’ exercise which outwardly indicates the company has procedures to actively ‘support’ staff mental health and wellbeing. However, what is often forgotten, but is essential for organisations to acknowledge, is that mental health first aiders cannot be held solely responsible for driving better mental health within a business. What’s more, mental health first aiders cannot be truly effective unless they are recruited with clear objectives and expectations within their lane.

How to employ mental health first aiders correctly

When mental health first aiders are viewed as one asset within a wellbeing strategy, rather than the sole solution to solving wellbeing issues or a just-for-show tick box wellbeing ‘perk’, they are much more likely to be successful. When given clear direction, time and proper support from their organisation, they can be fantastic conduits for improving engagement and leading the way in removing the stigma around poor mental health. 

Their job is to be those who can act as first responders in recognising where support may be needed and then break down the barrier by starting the conversation. A mental health first aider is not a trained professional who should be expected to conduct advanced conversations, but they are there to help signpost to additional support.

When a mental health first aider is viewed as the solution rather than one element of a multi-pronged strategy, this places an enormous responsibility on an often small group of people, who have possibly been drawn to becoming a mental health first aider due to their own lived experience. 

A multiple-prong approach is essential to address wellbeing across your organisation and preserve the mental health of those first aiders on the front line.

There needs to be a recognition and understanding that there is a complex interplay between work issues and life issues outside of work

How do organisations go beyond mental health first aiders?

To support employees when it comes to mental health in the workplace, the whole business needs to be engaged in a culture of fostering wellbeing. From the C-suite down, a holistic understanding of wellbeing that acknowledges the multifaceted nature of an employee’s life which can affect mental health needs to be championed by the entire organisation. 

In any scenario within or outside of the workplace, to support an individual struggling with poor mental health, one needs to strip the surface back to what is causing the issue, which may not be something directly linked to work. As such, there needs to be a recognition and understanding that there is a complex interplay between work issues and life issues outside of work.

It is impossible to disconnect how someone performs at work and their levels of productivity and job satisfaction from their state of wellbeing in their wider life. 

Once organisations have a more holistic view of understanding wellbeing at work, it becomes exceptionally clear why mental health first aiders cannot solve an organisation’s struggles on their own.

What does good mental health strategy in the workplace look like?

The organisations that are doing health and wellbeing well appreciate and act on the intersectionality between all the elements of wellbeing, health, and DEI. They understand how this interplay promotes a culture where people thrive, and by doing so serve a company’s customers better, treat the environment better and deliver better business outcomes.

In recently published guidelines on mental health at work released by the World Health Organisation, and in the ISO 45003 International Wellbeing Standards, there is an emphasis on the importance of the workplace as an ecosystem which collectively supports and contributes to improving mental health, where responsibility for fostering good mental health is placed on the whole organisation rather than a siloed activity for HR.

The key to a wellbeing strategy framework that is effective and deliverable is not down to only a good group of mental health first aiders, alongside bowls of fruit and some complimentary yoga. It is down to how brave an organisation is willing to be in acknowledging the role workplaces play in supporting and promoting good mental health within society. It is down to organisations who understand that a holistic approach to wellbeing, where it becomes everyone’s responsibility rather than a limited few, will have a much wider and more positive impact.

Make sure wellbeing strategy has a place on your organisation’s next board meeting agenda

Additional resources for HR

Find out more about workplace wellbeing guidelines by reading the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for wellbeing at work and the IS45003 guidelines for psychological health and safety at work.

Ensure your employees are aware of the wellbeing solutions and services available at your organisation. Perhaps send out a survey to gauge existing awareness of your wellbeing support systems and gather anonymous feedback from employees about what measures they would like to see implemented

Finally, make sure wellbeing strategy has a place on your organisation’s next board meeting agenda, and explore the option of having a dedicated job role in place for this, such as a chief wellbeing officer.

Interested in this topic? Read Does your employee mental health fall short?

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