How to support Mental Health First Aiders in the workplace

There are more than 500,000 certified Mental Health First Aiders in the UK. While this is a positive sign that organisations are taking mental health at work seriously, it's important to remember that MHFAiders® need support beyond the training too. In this blog post, we take a look at the role of a MHFAider® and how organisations can make it sustainable in the long term.

April 5, 2023

For many organisations up and down the country, having a dedicated Mental Health First Aider in the workplace is critical to their people strategy. According to the latest report from Mental Health First Aid England, a staggering 500,000 certified Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAiders®) support their colleagues. 

But, while this is a welcome sign that organisations are taking mental health at work seriously, it's important to remember that MHFAiders® need support beyond the training too. This helps to ensure they don't become overwhelmed by the effects of supporting others experiencing mental health difficulties. It also allows them to continue their professional development and share best practices, creating a culture where they feel valued in their role. 

What is the role of a Mental Health First Aider?

MHFAiders® are there to spot the signs of mental health issues. They are trained to listen in a non-judgmental way and confidently reassure someone experiencing distress. MHFAiders® aren't therapists, psychiatrists or counsellors, but act as a point of contact for an initial conversation before guiding individuals to the professional support they may need. Staff at any level in an organisation can complete the two-day training programme, certified by Mental Health First Aid England.

Why are Mental Health First Aiders critical to an organisation's people strategy?

The research into mental health in the workplace sometimes paints a negative picture. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK lost 17 million days to mental ill health from 2021 to 2022. HR leaders are also seeing increasing numbers of staff disclosing mental health issues. The direct impact of poor mental health on employees is worrying enough, without even looking at the economic impact of businesses losing productivity

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is one component of an organisation's people strategy. It demonstrates a commitment to creating a culture of awareness where mental health is no longer taboo. For people experiencing issues such as low mood, stress, and anxiety, expressing their feelings is one of the first steps to getting the necessary support. 

MHFAiders® can provide that listening ear and potentially prevent things from reaching a crisis point where a person might feel they can no longer engage in their usual activities, including attending work. When it comes to the maths, businesses that invest in mental health interventions can expect a financial return too. Analysis by Deloitte found that for every £1 spent on supporting people's mental health, employers get £5 back on their investment in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover. The same report also suggests that one of the most effective interventions for ROI is to be proactive and provide training and awareness programmes across the whole organisation.

Why is supporting a Mental Health First Aider essential beyond the training?

Organisations need to ensure that their MHFAiders® receive the necessary support to be effective in their newfound role. Most MHFAiders® take on this role on top of their current job, so it's essential to consider the time required to manage this balance. 

You can't underestimate the impact of supporting people experiencing emotional distress. MHFAiders® aren't super-human. They are just as susceptible to feelings of stress, overwhelm and low mood themselves. Those in smaller organisations might be the only certified person, leaving them at risk of isolation and feeling unable to ask for support if things get too much. Therefore it's vital to provide adequate support. Consideration also needs to be given to the personal experiences of MHFAiders® and how vulnerable they may be to the impact of what they might hear.

Supporting MHFAiders® in their role beyond the initial training is fundamental to building confidence in them and the broader organisation. It demonstrates the value and continued commitment to MHFA and provides an opportunity for continued personal and professional development. 

How can an organisation support its Mental Health First Aiders?

Proactively supporting MHFAiders® post-certification is the only way to ensure the long-term success of incorporating MHFA into your organisation's people strategy. Here are some ways to reduce the pressure and make the role sustainable in the long term:

  • Set expectations and boundaries for the person taking on the responsibility of being a Mental Health First Aider. Make this clear at the 'recruitment' stage before the initial training begins.
  • Put mechanisms in place so your designated MHFAiders® know when and where to go for support. Ensure there is at least one named contact overseeing the MHFA programme.
  • Create a Mental Health First Aider network, so those in the role can support each other and share ideas. Ideally, the person leading your organisation's MHFA should oversee this. Meeting regularly is recommended.
  • Provide access to external coaching and support sessions. Engage with a third party to facilitate meetings, skills development, and peer support across your Mental Health First Aider network.
  • Consider having several certified MHFAiders® within your organisation, so it doesn't become the sole responsibility of one person. You can then enable individuals to step back if they feel it's necessary. Also, keep track of who leaves the organisation and whether more trained MHFAiders® are needed. 
  • Invest in regular refresher training for your MHFAiders® to ensure they have the latest tools and insights.
  • Review and record the impact of the MHFA training regularly. Half-day refresher training is recommended every 3 years. 
  • Invest in awareness training across the whole organisation and encourage open conversations so people can reach out to your MHFAiders®. Also, make sure the MHFAiders® themselves feel supported.