With some 70 million working days lost each year to mental health issues, according to England’s chief medical officer’s 2014 annual report, mental health first aid is one solution for the workplace. Caroline Hounsell explains more.
The 2014 report of chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies focused on mental health, and looked at the cost of mental ill health to UK employers. It recommended that organisations prioritise mental health when it comes to investing in their employees.
Over the past year, social enterprise Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) has reported a marked increase in demand for workplace training. MHFA’s mission is to increase the nation’s mental health literacy and it offers employers a cost-effective way of tackling this issue in the workplace.
What is mental health first aid?
“MHFA is an internationally recognised and robustly evaluated training course that teaches people to spot the first signs and symptoms of common mental health problems and guide the person who is exper-iencing a mental health issue to appropriate help,” says the company’s CEO, Poppy Jaman. “Evidence shows that early intervention has a positive impact on a person’s recovery and therefore many employers are viewing the importance of MHFA to their organisation in much the same way as physical first aid,” she adds.
One organisation that has used MHFA is EY, a global professional services firm that has more than 14,000 employees in the UK and Ireland.
Like many businesses in recent months, EY has used the word “recovery” to describe improving financial markets and the end of a recession. Increasingly though, the employer is also referring to “recovery” in a different context – that of mental health. Underpinning EY’s approach to mental health is the assump-tion that any employee that is affected by a mental health issue will be supported along their recovery journey.
Cost to business
With mental ill health now affecting one in six of the UK workforce and the cost to UK business estimated at £26 billion per year, there is a clear need for employers to do more to protect, support and help staff with mental health issues.
The firm’s wellbeing programme is called Health EY and its “Thinking differently” initiative focuses specifically on mental health matters. EY has also introduced policies, initiatives and training courses to tackle the issue. One of the key aspects of this programme has been the roll out of MHFA throughout the organisation. Employees are being trained to act as a first point of call for staff facing mental health challenges or seeking advice. The firm has also formed a mental health buddy scheme to provide an informal support network to anyone affected by a mental health condition.
Paul Quinlan, a senior manager in the employee relations team at EY, explains the firm’s decision to invest in MHFA: “We wanted mental and physical health to hold equal weight in our wellbeing programme.”
After attending the standard two-day MHFA course, participants are able to provide help on a first-aid basis and effectively guide a person who is experiencing a mental health issue towards the right support services. In the case of EY, this might be signposting the person to the psychological care pathway or suggesting a referral to the firm’s occupational health team. It might also just be having a friendly chat and reassuring the person that support is available.
The course was offered to all staff on a voluntary basis and was publicised through the firm’s daily news email bulletin, the wellbeing intranet pages, the disability working group and mental health network. There are now around 100 partners and staff trained in MHFA and with more courses booked, this number will continue to increase over time.
EY’s philosophy on wellbeing is based on the idea that there should be similar approaches to mental and physical health (sometimes described as parity of esteem). Quinlan says: “In the same way that anyone can get a cold or flu, anyone can be affected by a mental health issue. In addition, the common assumption is that most physical health problems are temporary and it is generally expected the person will make a full recovery; whereas with mental health issues the perception tends to be the opposite. Our ‘Thinking differently’ programme aims to educate and build awareness of mental health and wellness because we want caring for your own mental health and that of the people around you to become business as usual at EY.”
EY is committed to delivering MHFA across the organisation for the foreseeable future. Support has also been gained at board level. Steve Wilkinson, EY’s UK and Ireland managing partner for client service, and partner sponsor of Health EY, says: “Within our programme, we have placed an increased emphasis on tackling the stigma of mental health, which is often viewed as the last workplace taboo. The introduction of mental health first-aiders and a buddy system will supplement our existing employee networks, providing a great way to get people talking about an issue that affects over one in four people in the UK.”