Demand for mental health first aiders is higher than ever, but they themselves are not immune to the stresses and pressures that can come with the role. Employers need to be proactive in providing ongoing support, as Sarah McIntosh explains.
The last few years have been hard on everyone. Amidst a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and changes to the ways we work, the need to support everyone’s mental health and wellbeing is greater than ever.
Many workplaces have responded to this need by increasing their mental health and wellbeing offering and mental health first aiders (MHFAs) are a vital part of this.
Since MHFA England was founded in 2007, we have trained one in 50 of the adult population in mental health knowledge and skills – including over 300,000 people since April 2020. This means more people than ever have the skills they need to spot the signs of mental ill health in the workplace and signpost people to support.
Any increase in MHFA numbers is hugely positive but we, as leaders, must ensure that the people carrying out these roles are supported to do so effectively, and their wellbeing is protected too.
As we move through 2022 and the worst uncertainty of the pandemic, we are now faced with the worst cost of living crisis since records began, chronic staff shortages, heat waves emphasising the climate crisis and disrupted travel. It’s no wonder that more people may need mental health support.
Mental health first aid
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has predicted an extra £300m will be needed to support people’s mental health over the coming year.
This is likely to put additional pressures on MHFAs, who are also not immune to these stresses and may need support themselves.
While MHFA England training is proven to make a lasting difference in a learner’s knowledge and confidence to provide mental health support, with 91% of people agreeing they found an increased understanding of mental health following their course, MHFAs can’t pour from an empty cup. They cannot support other employees unless they are able to support themselves.
At MHFA England we have been collaborating with workplaces, clinical experts and our instructor members, as well as MHFAs themselves to consider how best we can support them to stay empowered, confident and motivated to carry out this crucial role.
1) Help MHFAs to set boundaries
An essential part of any MHFA training is a clear understanding of the role, and just as significantly its boundaries.
As a mental health first aider, it is ok to set clear boundaries to protect your own mental health and take a break from the role if you need to. As a workplace, you should keep reminding people of this”
MHFAs are not trained therapists or a replacement for medical support services and should not be expected to act as such. They are there to support colleagues by encouraging them to practise self-care and signposting them to other support available.
As a mental health first aider, it is ok to set clear boundaries to protect your own mental health and take a break from the role if you need to. As a workplace, you should keep reminding people of this and build contingency into your MHFA network to help mitigate it.
At MHFA England, we have put together two guides, one for MHFAs and one for employers to help set individuals and organisations up for success and ensure that MHFAs can provide support where it’s needed and begin to help shape a healthier workplace with a thriving culture.
2) Encourage self-care
A critical part of the role of the MHFA is the ability for them to manage their wellbeing. Our course includes a focus on self-care so MHFAs can manage their own wellbeing.
Having your own time and space is an important part of protecting your own wellbeing. Self-care activities such as being active, staying connected and eating and sleeping well are all important to ensure wellbeing, as is being active and staying connected with others. We recommend having ‘happiness hours’ (or half hours!) throughout the day.
These could be any new or existing or activities that bring you joy or could be as simple as disconnecting from technology and enjoying some quiet time.
3) Offer ongoing support
The most common feedback that we receive from MHFAs is they want more support after their training. As a result, our new MHFA course now includes three years of continuous support for our MHFAs, well beyond their initial certification.
MHFAs now get automatic 24/7 digital support through our trademarked ‘MHFAider Support App’. From there, they’ll find exclusive resources, ongoing learning opportunities to grow their confidence, and the benefit of joining England’s largest community of trained MHFAs. The app also includes 24/7 text support service through ‘Shout’, for advice and reassurance on a mental health first aid conversation or to support wellbeing after a difficult conversation.
With that confidence, community and access to resources we believe that MHFAs will feel empowered to provide support where it’s needed and begin to help shape healthier workplaces with a thriving culture. Of course, the workplace itself also has a role, which is why recommending setting up a network of MHFAs so your people have internal support too.
4) Keep learning alive
For MHFAs to stay confident in their role they want to be up to date with the latest developments in mental health and wellbeing. Making sure that you empower MHFAs to maintain their skills by regularly accessing ongoing learning opportunities and resources is something for employers to consider when supporting MHFAs.
Empower MHFAs to maintain their skills by regularly accessing ongoing learning opportunities and resources”
As part of our MHFA offer, MHFAs get access to exclusive training and events to help them stay equipped to support their colleagues and themselves.
Whilst all the tips above are vital in helping MHFAs thrive in their role, they are, and can only ever be, just one part of the wider workplace wellbeing puzzle.
We know that work ‘done well’ is good for our mental health and that wellbeing and productivity fuel one and other.
So, having a network of MHFAs is great, but they need to be supported by a relentless focus on building an organisational culture that is set up for success.
This means having a mental health and wellbeing strategy that works for your people and your business.
Whether that includes flexible working, a responsive employee assistance programme or offering wellbeing breaks – all of these things work hand in hand to create a culture of wellbeing and therefore success.