Why your employees need mental health first-aiders

Mental ill health costs UK employers a staggering £34.9 billion each year, according to research recently published by the Centre for Mental Health. Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive at the Centre for Mental Health, says “At any one time, one in five working people will have a mental health difficulty. Many will never get any help. Some end up losing their jobs.”

Over the last year a massive 595,000 UK workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety and 15.4 million working days were lost from stress-related absence. These are the latest damning statistics produced by the governments Health and Safety Executive (HSE) responsible for the regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare in the UK.

Mental wellbeing at work significantly impacts employee engagement and performance. Combine work-related stress with poor levels of support and the cost to business is huge.

Some employers are ahead of the curve and already have a robust ‘mental wellbeing at work’ strategy in place. Others are taking steps to address the issue, but there are still significant numbers of employers who have no strategy for supporting mental wellbeing at work at all.

In this blog, I’ll be looking at the main causes of work-related stress and why mental first aiders at work should be a serious consideration in business.

What exactly is mental health?

Mental health is part of our overall health and refers to how we feel, think and behave. It includes our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Many people associate poor mental health with severe mental health problems, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

However, mental illness covers a broad spectrum of feelings and behaviours, such as feeling overloaded, burnt out or overwhelmed, and unable to cope. For more information on what mental health problems are, see mental health charity, Mind’s guide here.

What is work-related stress?

According to HSE, work-related stress is defined as “a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.”

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression accounts for 44% of all work-related illness. The main causes are workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.

Other factors include low pay, organisational changes, job insecurity, discrimination, violence (i.e. towards teachers, social workers, housing service staff, police and prison workers), lack of value and respect, and role uncertainty.

Why your business needs mental health first-aiders

Employers who take steps to support mental health at work reap the rewards of a happier, more productive workforce. In fact, according to the Centre for Mental Health, simple steps to improve mental health in the workplace enables employers to save significantly on the costs in terms of absenteeism and presenteeism. At Sussex Innovation Centre, where WeThrive are based, Ian Braid runs mental health first-aid sessions every other week which anyone from any business in the building is invited to attend. But generally, it feels like at SINC we are in the minority.

Those who ignore the problem are risking the health of their employees, the potential success of their business and the health of the wider economy.

The Mental Health Foundation believe workplace mental health should not be seen as a burden and a cost, but employers should instead be recognising the value and potential gain of protecting workers and improving mental health at work. Stressful working conditions are detrimental to mental wellbeing.

One of the biggest challenges for employers is in recognising the early warning signs of mental health issues in the workplace and implementing policies and practices that work towards prevention. Many men and women suffer in silence at work, feeling unable to seek help from their manager or colleagues.

Mental Health First Aid is an internationally recognised training course designed to teach people how to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and guide someone to access appropriate support.

A mental health first aider is someone who is trained to recognise the early signs and symptoms of mental ill health and is able to start a supportive conversation with a colleague who may be experiencing mental health problems or emotional distress.

As many as 91 per cent of managers say that what they do affects the wellbeing of their staff, yet less than a quarter of managers have received any training on how to deal with mental health problems at work.

Find some useful resources here by MHFA (Mental Health First Aid England), a training provider for mental health first aid.

How can employers support mental health in the workplace?

As we spend a significant amount of our time at work, mental health is a workplace issue. Work-related stress can have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of employees, and employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work. Even when the root cause of an employee’s mental ill-health is not work-related, work can still exacerbate mental health problems.

Of course by using tools such as employee engagement surveys so you are regularly checking in on your employees, line managers can help ensure they understand any mental health issues their employees are facing and hopefully, help.

Here are some other things employers can do to support mental health at work:

  • Raise awareness of work-related mental health issues. Support local and national campaigns in the workplace to raise awareness about mental health issues and signpost people to access mental health services.
  • Encourage employees to become active and share their stories about mental health issues and how it has affected them in the workplace. Removing the stigma around mental health is key.
  • Train managers to understand the common problems in the workplace that are likely to contribute to stress and mental health problems and equip them with the skills to listen, support and signpost staff to the help they need.
  • Nominate one or two employees to train as mental health first aiders.

Within every business there are people suffering. It is time businesses took action to minimise the stigma of mental health problems and put a stop to the culture of silence around mental wellbeing at work.

Businesses need to improve openness and education, and promote policies that advocate better support for employees, especially those most at risk of workplace stress. Mental health first aiders are a good place to start. Happy, healthy employees are integral to business success.

For more information on mental health at work, read our white paper on improving employee wellbeing at work.