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Are Mental Health First Aiders the best way to reduce work related mental health issues?

The growing recognition from construction firms of the impact of poor mental health on their workforce has led to more recognition that we need to do more to support employees and their mental health. In response to this, there has been a steady rise in the introduction of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA).

  • It’s great to see that firms are now much more open to taking action, but the question is whether this is the right course of action in the first place? Or is it a case of they’re merely papering over the cracks by adopting piecemeal low-level interventions that are not actually dealing with the wider more difficulty issues at play.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carried out a review summarising the evidence on the effectiveness of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training in the workplace. The review found that:

  • There are only a small number of published occupational studies that have addressed mental health first aid (MHFA) and these had design and quality limitations.
  • There is limited evidence that the content of MHFA training has been adapted for workplace circumstances.
  • There is consistent evidence that MHFA training raises employees’ awareness of mental ill‐ health conditions, including signs and symptoms.
  • There is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental ill‐health.
  • There is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organisational management of mental health in workplaces.

Training courses aren’t the only answer
Sending an employee on a mental health first aid course for two days and then expecting them to be able to deal with the wide gamut of mental health issues that may present themselves in their site teams is a tall order at best.
It’s great to train people to be more aware of mental health issues and what to look out for, but we can’t expect them to know everything, and neither should they replace the need for fully qualified trained professionals. Their role shouldn’t be one of diagnosis or even solution but of signposting employees to options for support.

Stop taking the simplest route
It’s all too easy to adopt the quick and easy option of introducing mental health first aiders so you’re seen to be doing something when employees report a work-related mental health issue. But what do you tell your mental health first aiders and managers to do when they are faced with an employees’ problem? Do they have real power to instigate change to reduce workplace stress?
This level of authority often sits high up the leadership ladder so being unable to act can lead to frustration as both the employee and the mental health first aider/manager cannot fundamentally make major changes.
For example, when a firm has reports of stress from its employees, they may choose to offer surface level fixes such as massages or a mental health talk to show that they have listened and responded. Whereas the firm may neglect to start the much harder task of delving into why employees are feeling stressed.
By digging deep to understand why workers are becoming stressed and developing tangible changes that address the underlying cause, takes far more involvement from management and may involve more money as well as more time investments. Therefore, the primary issues of why employees are reporting feeling stressed may ultimately remain unresolved.

Mental health first aiders need time and space to fulfil their role
Mental health first aiders are often sought from employees who already have busy roles. Training them to have more in-depth mental health conversations is good but how much time can they really commit to listening and being the sounding board for their colleagues. Employers must ask themselves what responsibilities will be taken away so that MHFA’s have the time and space to do this?

Mental health first aiders can’t be there 24/7.
It can be hard to take on the role of supporting an employee who is going through mental health challenges and all too often lines can become blurred. It can be hard to know where to draw the line. Things can soon escalate to phone calls and messages outside of working hours.
As a non-medical professional, it can be hard to know how to switch off and take care of yourself. Being approachable is one thing but it’s just as important to set boundaries so that the mental health first aider looks after themselves and ensures that their free time remains just that, free.

So, what can construction firms do?
Mental health first aiders are a good thing, but construction firms have a duty of care to make sure that their programmes are set up correctly and that there are robust support systems in place for all concerned. Some of the main considerations are:

  • Acknowledging mental first aiders limits put in clear boundaries and support.
  • Making it clear that their role is to listen and signpost people to other areas of support.
  • Having support in place for your mental health first aiders if they start to feel overwhelmed or out of their depth.
  • Having a senior level manager who mental health first aiders can approach if things need to be addressed.
  • Taking a preventative approach to work related mental ill-health (a stress risk assessment or use the HSE Talking toolkit

An even more effective approach for construction firms looking to reduce workplace stress would be to train ALL supervisors to have good wellbeing conversations and what they can do to prevent stress. This would deliver far more impact than having a handful of MHFA’s.

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