With mental health costing the UK economy between £74 billion and £99 billion per year, many businesses are looking for ways to improve the mental wellbeing of their workforce. One solution some employers are turning to is implementing mental health first aid training – but this must be done properly, or businesses risk spending time and money on an initiative that has limited impact in the long run. Towergate Health & Protection identifies the top five reasons why mental health first aid training can fall at the first hurdle.


1) Papering over the cracks

The workplace can be a pressure cooker for mental health issues. Tight deadlines, conflicting personalities and difficult trading periods can all exacerbate – or even create – mental health problems. Organisations need to recognise that fundamental changes may be required to its working culture, in order to truly support the mental wellbeing of staff, or risk merely papering over cracks with initiatives. For example, the construction industry, in particular, is aware of this – citing the ‘macho culture’ as a reason why one in four workers say they have considered suicide and 55% experience mental health issues.

For mental health first aid training to have an impact, it must be part of a culture that supports mental wellbeing, and for some businesses this might need quite a shift. Some companies may have an open culture but not provide support; some may provide support but not have a culture that encourages its use, and neither approaches are conducive to a mental wellbeing initiative being successful.


2) Training the wrong staff

The temptation can be to train staff based on their level of seniority. But the decision about who to train should be much more considered, as just because staff are senior, they may not necessarily be best placed to hold such positions. For example, if a business trains a manager in mental health first aid who may have a reputation internally for not being approachable, that training needs to be accompanied by some more general training and development of the manager’s interpersonal skills to achieve the desired outcome. Equally, an individual who puts themselves forward for training, perhaps because they have an interest in the subject due to experience of mental health issues among friends or family, may not necessarily have the resilience or objectivity required for the role. An interest in the subject should not by itself be a reason for selecting an individual for training, employers also need to think about the ability of the individual to deal with what can be a sensitive subject.So, it’s important that businesses have a robust application-and-interview process in place, to ensure appropriate staff are trained, and that a well-rounded mix of mental health first aiders are available to staff across an organisation.


3) No time to deliver support

Employees may not put their head above the parapet to volunteer for mental health first aid training as they don’t have the time, or don’t want the responsibility. But just as first aiders aren’t expected to take on the role of a paramedic or GP, it’s important to explain to employees that mental health first aiders are there to spot the warning signs of an issue and then signpost individuals to further help – not actually deliver ongoing care.


4) Blurring boundaries

However, it’s also possible that an employee that builds up a good reputation as being a talented mental health first aider, can find themselves in demand from a wide selection of employees – which can distract them from their day job. It’s important that a quality selection of mental health first aiders is available to employees, so that pressure doesn’t mount on one individual. Equally, line managers need to be aware, and accept, that mental health first aiders may be required to fulfil their duties, with little or no notice, to help someone. But this should be done on balance with the understanding that support is available during work hours only, so it doesn’t spill over into the mental health first aider’s personal or home life.


5) Impact not measured

As with any form of training, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Measurements need to be put in place to track whether mental health first aiders are having a positive impact on a business. For example, running open forums – giving staff the opportunity to air mental health concerns in a confidential group setting, or running a staff engagement survey, can be used to monitor whether employees feel better supported with their mental wellbeing. It can also indicate areas of further improvement to organisations, such as if staff may benefit from offering more formal support for mental health, employee assistance programmes, access to professionals, duvet days or more flexibility in their work.

Brett Hill, distribution director at Towergate Health & Protection, comments: “The subject of mental health is rightfully receiving a lot of attention at present, but businesses risk making a knee-jerk reaction to the issue by implementing solutions before the organisation is truly prepared to make lasting change. It’s important that businesses look at the culture of their organisation and the people working within it, to see how best to address mental health within the context of their business. It’s no good having a culture that’s open, but not having staff that are trained to support mental wellbeing; and vice versa, having staff trained to support mental wellbeing but a culture that doesn’t support mental health is going to fail. The right foundations need to be laid to ensure that any initiatives implemented, such as mental health first aid training, are truly impactful.”