Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Written by Jeff Liang

You likely have a plan in place for accidents and medical emergencies in the workplace. But what about if one of your employees experience a mental health crisis?

Physical health and wellbeing are important, but they’re just part of the equation. Mental health is an equally important part. Unfortunately, it’s one area where a lot of organisations are uninformed. 

One of the first steps in bringing your mental health policy in line with your existing first aid plan is to think about mental health first aid.

Just one question: where do you start?

What is Mental Health First Aid?

The goal of first aid is to provide support following a medical emergency or accident. Mental health first aid (MHFA) is the same, focusing on immediate response and support until they can see a professional.

While mundane mental health issues like interpersonal conflicts and stress are important and both contribute to mental health in the workplace, they aren’t what MHFA focuses on. The focus is on urgent mental health challenges that demand immediate support.

Tips for Providing Mental Health First Aid

1) Recognise the signs

When it comes to mental health, people are often hesitant to talk. In fact, it’s estimated that 4 out of 10 Australians keep silent at work about their mental health. Oftentimes, people going through a mental health crisis won’t come forward.

And that’s why it’s important that you’re able to recognise the signs and symptoms.

  • Changes in behaviour and significant drops in productivity
  • Significant withdrawal from friends and co-workers
  • Extreme mood swings and emotional outbursts
  • Restless, agitated behaviour
  • Neglecting self-care and personal appearance
  • Sudden weight and appetite changes

It’s also good practice to keep an extra close eye on employees after breakups, losing a loved one, or traumatic events. These can often precipitate a mental health crisis – it’s good practice to check in regularly and observe for any changes in behaviour.

2) The right approach is key

Since this is a delicate topic for many, it’s important that you’re careful with how you broach the subject. Mental Health First Aid Australia recommends the ALGEE model as a guideline for how to talk about mental health with one of your team members:

·        Approach, assess, assist – you’ll need to carefully watch your tone and ensure that their privacy and boundaries are respected. Choose a private and comfortable place and respect your employee’s boundaries

·        Listen and communicate non-judgmentally – use understanding language, don’t say anything that might be interpreted as pinning the blame on them, and be empathetic

·        Give support and information – this can mean providing moral support and affirmation, but it can also mean talking about practical support. Be sure to research hotlines and other services

·        Encourage professional help – while some employees may be resistant to help, it’s important that you plant the seed and if necessary, help them figure out how to get psychological support

·        Encourage other supports – depending on the individual, there might be other supports, self-help strategies and mechanisms that can help. Encourage your employee to find what works for them

This is only an outline, but it can be helpful in crafting your approach. Just remember that it’s only a guideline, and as with anything else involving mental health, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and to tailor your approach to your employees.

3) Respect boundaries

One of the most important things to do with mental health is boundaries. While it’s important that you approach them about it, it’s important to remember that some employees just don’t want to discuss it, especially with an employer. If they rebuff you immediately or have certain areas that are off-limits, you shouldn’t try forcing them to talk about it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should just back off. In fact, there are other ways you can offer mental health first aid while respecting boundaries. For example, if they don’t want to open up, you should encourage them to talk to somebody they trust or seek professional help.

How to Prepare Your Workplace for Mental Health Crises

Consider getting mental health first aid training

While it may sound unnecessary, if you’re serious about mental health, then mental health first aid training is something you should seriously consider looking into.

MHFA training offers practical training in how to apply mental health first aid, and can ensure that your workplace’s mental health first aid plan can be carried out by someone who knows how to approach it.

Some things mental health first aid training covers include:

  • How to best apply the ALGEE model, including specific language that should be used
  • How to prepare a mental health first aid kit and action plan
  • Education about different mental health conditions and problems
  • Identifying risk factors in the workplace
  • Scenario-based training, where participants practice applying different mental health first aid to a range of mental health crises
  • How to develop self-care plans to maintain mental health

In Australia, a standard mental health first aid training comprises a 12-hour course with both individual and group activities. Upon completion, you may be eligible to complete an online assessment certifying you as an Accredited Mental Health First Aider for 3 years.

Prepare a mental health first aid kit

Many individuals now have their very own personalised mental health first aid kit full of things that help cope with stress and anxiety – you may even have one yourself!

In addition to your personal mental health first aid kit, it’s a good idea to put together one for your workplace as well. Since we’re dealing with mental health crises, this should contain resources and tools that you can use when responding to a mental health crisis:

  • Refreshers on different mental health problems
  • Scripts you can use when talking about mental health with employees
  • Employee Assistance Programs that offer on-demand, confidential psychological support
  • Contact information for outside services like counsellors, mental health hotlines, and psychologists

On top of all that however, it can also be a good idea to stock your mental health first aid kit with things that help your team practice self-care and improve their mental health.

A good idea is to talk with each of them about what they do to look after themselves. This is especially important if one of your employees has opened up to you about facing mental health challenges.

In summary

Mental health first aid matters because mental health matters. Not only is the right thing to do, but it also has proven benefits for our bottom line:

  • Higher performance
  • More motivation
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Higher staff retention

Maintaining good mental health and having systems and tools in place to respond to mental health crises are key parts of this.

“The opinions expressed by BizWitty Contributors are their own, not those of BizCover and should not be relied upon in place of appropriate professional advice. Please read our full disclaimer."

About the author

Jeff Liang

Jeff is an SEO specialist at MOO Marketing and Design, a marketing agency in Melbourne, Australia. In addition to the fast-moving world of SEO and digital marketing, he is also interested in the discourse surrounding workplace equality and accessibility, and loves reading – and writing - about it