Work-related mental health issues such as stress, depression and anxiety are now more prevalent than ever. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an increased rate of sickness absences due to mental health problems amongst UK workers, according to figures released by the National Health Service (NHS).
One of the ways in which employers and businesses can provide support for their employees is to have mental health first aiders present in the workplace.
In addition to relevant training, mental health first aiders require a range of soft skills that are designed to make people feel more at ease discussing their mental health issues.
In this article, we will outline the role of mental health first aiders in the workplace, illustrate why they are an important component of the modern workplace and take a look at what skills are necessary for mental health first aiders.
What Is a Mental Health First Aider?
Mental health first aiders are the first point of contact for anyone in the workplace who may have a mental health issue. They provide help and advice on how someone can manage their mental health issues. They can guide an employee towards finding professional help.
Mental health first aiders also act to promote better mental health awareness in the workplace. Mental health first aiders in the workplace can conduct health and safety risk assessments that consider the mental health risks in the workplace. They can make recommendations on what can be done to eliminate or mitigate these risks.
Is Having Mental Health First Aiders a Legal Requirement?
Although it is not a legal requirement to have mental health first aiders in the workplace, employers do have an obligation to safeguard the physical and mental health of their employees.
All employers have an obligation to provide a safe working environment for their employees, as stipulated in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. This ensures that the workplace is free from any physical hazards but also extends to protecting the mental health of employees.
What is the Impact of Poor Mental Health in the Workplace?
Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and stress were the most consistently reported reason for sickness absences in the UK in the first quarter of 2022, as reported by the NHS. Poor mental health resulted in the equivalent of more than 504,000 full-time days lost in this period.
It has been estimated that poor mental health among workers results in a cost of more than £117.9 billion to the UK economy annually, as detailed in a report by the Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
What Skills Should Mental Health First Aiders Have?
Mental health first aiders must have a range of skills that allow them to effectively aid their colleagues when required. They must also be able to identify when a person is suffering from a mental health issue and may need help. Soft skills such as empathy, understanding and good communication techniques are essential for mental health first aiders in the workplace.
Communication is Key
Communication is the most important skill for mental health first aiders. Even with the best intentions, you can fail to help someone suffering if you do not communicate effectively.
By being mindful of how they communicate, a first aider can talk to others in a way that puts them at ease. This allows for a better assessment of the person’s needs and makes them more open to receiving help and suggestions.
Overall, communication is about the relaying of information by a communicator, and the receiving of information by a listener or audience. For mental health first aiders in the workplace, good communication skills include being aware of their tone of voice and the way in which they provide advice.
Be Aware of How You Speak
Speaking is, of course, very important for effective communication.
Your tone of voice is important. Tone involves the volume you use, the level and type of emotion that you put into your words and the emphasis that you place on words. Your tone of voice, the way you say certain words, and the language you use will convey meaning to a listener.
Not minding your tone can lead to miscommunication. Being open and confident in how you speak will make you seem more approachable and conversing with you will be much easier for others.
How you say something is as important as what you say. Be concise. Stay focused on the purpose of the conversation and be clear and intentional when speaking. It is advisable to use someone’s name when speaking to them. People appreciate being recognised and this will make them feel like they are being heard.
Practice Active Listening
Good communication requires effective, active listening skills if the information is to be properly received and understood. Active listening is a skill that needs to be learned and practised. It requires effort and application. Active listening is when a person is fully engaged in understanding what is being said to them. It is the ability to hear something with thoughtful retention.
Passive listening is a mechanical activity that requires minimal to no effort. When listening passively, we may have our minds on something else. Active listening ensures that your attention remains on the person speaking.
What you hear as a listener is as important as what is said. Often, people assume that what they say is what a listener has heard. A lot of miscommunication occurs this way, so it is always worth checking to see if a listener has understood.
Let Them Know They’re Being Heard
Another key element to active listening is to demonstrate that you are paying attention. Someone who is struggling may find it difficult to explain something to you.
Nod and concur with them as they speak to show you are physically paying attention. Repeat back, or even reword, what they have said to you to demonstrate understanding. Don’t interrupt someone as they are speaking as this can make them feel disrespected.
Poor listening leads to misunderstandings, potential conflict with colleagues and a lack of empathy with their situation. Equally, important information about a person’s mental health issues may be missed.
Create a Calm Environment
A low-stress, peaceful environment is key to encouraging good communication. When giving mental health first aid, you will most likely choose to speak to someone face to face, as this is a very direct and personable way of communicating.
However, with hybrid working conditions becoming more prevalent, you may be helping people remotely, via videoconferencing or over the phone. Ensuring a quiet and calm setting will help the person you are trying to assist feel comfortable and safe, and will allow you to assess and understand their needs more effectively.
Be Mindful of Body Language
It is crucial that mental health first aiders pay attention to both their own body language and the body language of the person they are talking to.
You can tell a lot from somebody’s tone of voice. However, body language – the ways in which a person acts and holds themselves – will communicate as much, if not more, information than what they say. Some 70% of communication is made through body language and visual cues.
Manage your body language. Aim to be approachable and easy to talk to. Folded arms and a stern facial expression will give people the impression you are annoyed or upset. Whereas open arms, straight shoulders and a smile will make you appear more approachable and friendly.
Make it a habit of sitting down when you discuss anything with others, this will help them to relax. Keep your back straight and have relaxed, open arms and shoulders. If appropriate, smile when greeting and talking to others.
Have Compassion and Respect for Boundaries
When you see someone who is emotionally or psychologically distressed, you may be drawn to put your hand on their shoulder, hold their hand or otherwise touch them in a reassuring manner.
In some situations, gestures like these can demonstrate warmth, empathy and positive regard. But it is crucial to understand that not everyone finds touch comforting. Touch that is unexpected or uninvited may cause someone to feel uncomfortable, anxious or even angry. As a general rule, to avoid misunderstanding and confusion it is advisable to avoid touching people.
If you do feel that a person may benefit from tactile support – and it feels appropriate – always ask permission first. Keep in mind that what people are comfortable with depends on the person. Factors such as gender, race and culture can greatly influence the level of contact a person is comfortable with.
Understand Your Biases and Be Non-Judgemental
Mental health first aiders in the workplace must contend with various barriers that can lead to poor communication. The first barrier is our natural bias.
Humans have a natural tendency to judge each other. When we encounter situations that we are not familiar with, we start judging. For situations that we are familiar with, we assume we understand all the nuances involved before we actually do.
These tendencies stop the effective delivery of mental health first aid. Anyone who is feeling that they are being judged will not want to open up to you. You won’t form a clear picture of what they are experiencing, and they may not want your help.
Always treat people with respect and dignity, regardless of their situation or what they tell you. Support the person, don’t lecture them. Remember the problems they face are not due to weakness or laziness.
Self-awareness is crucial. Try to understand yourself and your own biases and remember that humans judge each other automatically. Be mindful of this and keep these thoughts to yourself. Also be mindful of your facial expressions, as they can convey judgement without you realising.
Where to Find Training for Mental Health First Aiders
Training can help mental health first aiders to develop their soft skills and provide them with a thorough knowledge of different mental health issues. Mental health first aid training will give mental health first aiders in the workplace the skills they need to identify when a colleague is suffering from a mental health issue and help them to provide effective assistance.
Human Focus offers an online Mental Health First Aid training course specifically for mental health first aiders in the workplace. The Human Focus mental health courses can assist in further promoting mental health awareness in the workplace. These courses can be taken online at your convenience and are designed to help employers and employees create a safe and supportive workplace for all.