With mental health being one of the leading causes of sickness absence, and with thousands of employees losing their jobs each year to mental health-related problems, employers are increasingly looking to find ways to support the emotional wellbeing of their employees.
Below we look at the benefits of appointing a mental health first aider as part of any wider workplace health and wellbeing strategy, and what this role involves for the person appointed. We also look at what the law says about having a designated first aider in place for mental health issues, as well as the process of recruiting and training a person to fill this vital role.
What is a mental health first aider?
A mental health first aider is someone designated to deal with anyone at work suffering from mental health issues, providing a key point of contact, as well as advice and guidance in seeking the professional help that the individual may need. These issues can range from personal or work-related stress to all sorts of symptoms indicative of employee burnout. They can also include long-standing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
In addition to being someone to talk to whenever a member of staff is struggling mentally, signposting individuals to any available internal or external support, a mental health first aider can also act as a champion for positive change within an organisation. In this way, the role can be used to raise awareness and challenge stigmas around mental health matters.
Promoting positive mental health is not down to one person, but the designated first aider will form an important part of a whole organisation approach to workplace mental wellbeing, helping to foster a supportive culture, and create a healthy and happy working environment.
What are the responsibilities of a mental health first aider?
The responsibilities of a mental health first aider can vary depending on the extent of their training, the role they are given and the time allocated to dealing with this role. They will have similar responsibilities to a regular first aider, but instead of treating physical injuries, they will be required to identify any issues affecting a person’s mental health.
At the very least, a mental health first aider will be expected to act as a point of contact for colleagues who are struggling mentally, providing reassurance in the first instance, together with a pathway to further information, resources, support or treatment. They may also be tasked with looking out for signs of mental health issues that may be affecting individuals at work, intervening where appropriate to prevent these problems from escalating.
Responsibilities and boundaries of those trained as mental health first aiders and mental health champions include:
- Keeping themselves safe and well, and only performing the role at times that are appropriate for their own wellbeing
- Establishing suitable boundaries between themselves and colleagues they may be supporting
- Communicating their concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of anyone in their workplace, for example, to an appropriate manager
- Following their employer’s policies and procedures on how any health and wellbeing strategy is implemented in the workplace
- Upholding their role as a mental health first aider alongside their other responsibilities.
Being a mental health first aider is a voluntary role and will need to fit in around the appointed person’s day-to-day responsibilities as an employee. This means, from time to time, the employee may have their own mental health issues, where they too will need support and so will not be in a place to support others. As such, consideration should always be given to appointing more than one mental health first aider within your organisation.
To perform their role effectively and safely, your first aiders will also need the full support of your organisation. This should include a comprehensive health and wellbeing strategy, together with relevant policies and procedures, as well as clear communication of their role within the workplace and how they will be supported in meeting their responsibilities.
Is having a mental health first aider a mandatory requirement?
There is no strict legal requirement for an employer to appoint a mental health first aider in the workplace. However, under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, all employers are under a statutory duty, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This includes an employee’s mental and emotional wellbeing.
To discharge this statutory duty, you must identify any health and safety risks to which an employee may be exposed at work that may contribute to or exacerbate any mental health problems, taking appropriate measures to control these risks. Here, mental health issues are now as much of a priority as physical ill-health. In fact, in the recent update of its first aid guidance, the Health and Safety Executive highlights the importance of considering mental health alongside physical health when undertaking a first aid needs assessment.
As an employer, you are also under a duty to consider any physical or mental impairment amounting to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, making reasonable adjustments to the employee’s working conditions to ensure that they are not substantially disadvantaged in carrying out their job role when compared to non-disabled people. This can include, for example, amended duties, altered hours or workplace adaptations.
By appointing a designated mental health first aider as part of a wider workplace health and wellbeing strategy, this can help you to identify what may be causing or contributing to mental health problems at work and what steps can be taken to reduce these risks. A first aider can also help you to identify any symptoms of mental health in your staff and signpost them to the necessary support to remain in and thrive at work. Very often, it will only require fairly small and simple changes to make all the difference, such as agreeing to flexible working.
Appointing a mental health first aider is just one part of an overall strategic process to help you adequately support your employees although, of itself, it can often prove to be an effective way of identifying the symptoms and underlying causes of mental health problems, and finding suitable ways in which these can be resolved.
Any failure to detect and address mental health issues in the workplace can lead to both short and long-term problems, where the cost of poor mental health from absenteeism, presenteeism and the potential loss of valuable members of staff will easily outweigh the cost of training mental health first aiders tasked with preventing these problems from escalating.
Who should be appointed as a mental health first aider?
Mental health first aiders do not need to be trained therapists or counsellors. They are not there to provide a clinical diagnosis as to what mental health issues a person may be suffering from, nor should they be seen as a replacement for proper treatment or medical intervention where needed. Their role is instead to act as a point of contact and reassurance for anyone who may be suffering from a mental health issue or experiencing an emotional crisis, as well as being able to point them toward the right professional help and support if necessary.
The designated first aider will therefore need to have a good grasp of mental health matters and be comfortable discussing such matters with other members of staff. They will also need to be able to provide basic advice on what steps a person can take, including the range of support services and resources available either in-house or externally.
This means the role of the first aider will not only require a solid understanding of the important factors affecting mental ill health, and be able to identify the signs and symptoms for a range of mental health conditions, they must be trained in the use of ALGEE. This is a mnemonic device for the five-step action plan when administering mental health first aid:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
- Listen non-judgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
To achieve an appropriate level of understanding, with the necessary skills to carry out their role effectively, anyone you recruit into this role will require at least some basic mental health first aid training. It is recommended that you train a wide range of individuals, encouraging applications from different seniority levels, locations, genders, and ethnic backgrounds.
These should be people who want to learn more about mental health matters to support others at work, whether or not they have experienced mental ill health themselves. They must also have demonstrated an ability to relate well to others and to maintain confidentiality. You should ensure that any applicants can commit to the time required for the role, and who have the support from their line manager to fulfil this role once trained.
Training & support for mental health first aiders
For employers looking at ways in which to implement mental health first aid training, organisations of different shapes and sizes may need to take different approaches, with some providing in-house training and others reaching out to external providers. In either case, however, any first aid training must be specifically designed to teach delegates how to recognise the warning signs of mental ill health, and help them to develop the necessary skills and confidence to approach and/or support someone, while keeping themselves safe.
Ideally, the course will also be designed to empower mental health first aiders to take action, both by advising individuals in crisis and pointing them towards the help that they need, but also by finding ways to make positive changes. A mental health first aider may not necessarily be in a position to enact systemic change, but they can act as the eyes and ears for their employer, identifying both individual and collective issues that need to be resolved.
Preparation and advance planning can be key when appointing mental health first aiders. This means you must first evaluate the support you have in place for people suffering from mental health issues. In this way you can develop clear referral and assistance pathways so your mental health first aiders can effectively and safely signpost colleagues to the right support.
You must also develop a clear policy and role document, setting out in writing your organisation’s approach to mental health first aid training. In this way you can provide your delegates with clear documentation of the expectations and boundaries of their role within your organisation. This should include guidance on their responsibilities, self-care and opting out, support for your mental health first aiders and how to signpost colleagues to support.
Once your delegates have successfully completed their training, it’s also important to follow up afterwards, ensuring that you fully promote their role within your organisation and provide them with ongoing support. Appointing mental health first aiders isn’t just about ticking a training box, it’s about making sure your workforce are aware of who they are, what they can do and how they can be contacted. It’s also about taking care of those who are willing to invest their time, on a voluntary basis, to undertake this important role.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists work with UK employers on all aspects of workforce management to support employee mental health and wellbeing. Appointing a mental health first aider can be highly effective in providing valuable support and guidance for workers suffering from mental ill health at work. For expert advice on mental wellbeing at work specific to your organisation and personnel needs, speak to our experts today.
Mental health first aider FAQs
Is it a legal requirement to have a mental health first aider?
Having a mental health first aider is not a legal requirement, although all employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, including mental wellbeing, and to make reasonable adjustments where necessary.
How much does it cost to become a mental health first aider?
The cost of becoming a mental health first aider will depend on the type of course undertaken and whether or not any training is provided in-house or externally, although this cost will typically be funded by the employer.
Last updated: 17 April 2021