Mental Health First Aid – a necessity or a nice to have?

Since 1981, the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations have required employers to provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work.

This is essentially in the form of physical first aid training that everyone is familiar with. You know, those 3-day courses where you learn about everything from bleeds to heart attacks, and strokes to CPR. There are even calculators online so you can work out how many people need to be trained up based on head count. But what about mental health?

Currently, there are no legal requirements to have designated mental health first aiders in the workplace. This seems incomprehensible given that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health issue each year. The Office for National Statistics reports that in 2016 alone, 15.8 million UK work days were lost due to a mental illness. In addition, Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) states that the largest causes of absence from work are depression, stress, and anxiety, and it is estimated that mental illness costs UK businesses almost £35 billion every year.

Across the Home Group, we have nearly 200 Homies, so in theory a quarter of them may well experience mental ill health this year – that could be as many as 50 people!

I have been one of our ‘physical’ health first aiders for 9 of the 11 years I have worked at Home. It’s a skill I am incredibly grateful for and one that is hugely valuable, but when I think about how many times I have been called upon to use this skill, only once has that been in the workplace. And that was for a minor cut. Outside of work, I’ve also had to give CPR to a man who had suffered a heart attack… So that’s twice in 9 years. Now, I’m not undermining the importance of ‘physical’ first aid, far from it. But just imagine what help I could have offered to people suffering from mental ill health, if 1 in 4 are at risk. During my 11 years here, that could have amounted to over 100 Homies.

That is why myself (Head of Group HR and Operations), and Sarah Wareham, our Insight and Strategy Director, have just completed our training to become qualified mental health first aiders – a pledge we made to Homies during Mental Health Awareness Week 2018.

We did the course with MHFA and it was excellent. It has given us a deeper understanding of the issues that impact people’s mental health taught us practical skills that we can use every day, like being able to spot signs and symptoms, and given us the confidence to offer support when needed. Critically, it has given us more tools to help people before they reach crisis point; before stress, anxiety or other concerns overwhelm them.

Obviously after a 2-day training course, we aren’t qualified counsellors or psychiatrists, but what we can do is lend an ear without judgement. We can be someone to ask if you’re ok, a person to have a brew with, and someone who can support you in getting professional help.

We can only make mental ill health as acceptably common as a cold if we talk about it. We all have a duty to stop the stigmas and breakdown the barriers. MHFA are campaigning for one in every ten people in the workplace to have completed training, just like the course we’ve been on, because we all have mental health to deal with. And just like our physical health, there are things that we can do to help others stay well, recover and manage their symptoms so they can live their lives the way they want to. Mental health first aid training should be a legal requirement, just like physical is. They go hand in hand.

I go back to my first point. Employers should provide adequate and appropriate equipment: a cup of tea, leaflets on who to speak to if you’re feeling anxious, facilities like a quiet room to and have a private 1-2-1 chat, and personnel like trained mental health first aiders. If you don’t currently have mental health first aiders at work, why not ask your CEO, MD, FD or any other acronym you can think of for the budget and get as many people as possible trained up! You will not regret it.

And finally, if you’re reading this feeling like you have a mental health issue, it is OK not to be OK. There are people who can help you. You are never alone.