Currently first aid at work training only covers physical aspects of ill health at work and does not include any training on how to manage mental health problems. This is unfortunate because mental ill health is common and the cause is often related to work.
If you look at average General Practitioner consultations, one consultation in every four is for a mental health problem. The main work activities suggested as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety are workload pressures including scheduling, shift work and other organisational factors. Common causes also include difficulties with superiors, bullying or harassment, reduction of resources or staff and additional responsibilities. Over the last decade there has been a steady rise in the number of employees presenting with mental health problems at work as careers have moved away from the old heavy industry towards the service businesses. This has led to a decrease in the number of physical illnesses and injuries suffered by employees and a rise in mental health problems as the stress and mental pressure on business and employees have increased. Sickness absence because of mentally ill health is now a larger problem for most businesses compared to the more traditional causes of absence such as back pain.
It is also interesting to note that first aid training has not kept abreast of this massive increase in mental health problems at work and fundamentally hasn't changed for 50 years. It certainly doesn't include any training on how to recognise or manage employees with mental health problems.
Mental health issues at work are generally poorly managed and even professional managers and HR staff find it difficult to manage such cases. So what do you need to consider when presented with an employee with a mental health problem? The first issue is to identify whether the person really has a mental health issue. This can be a challenge. A physical illness is usually relatively easy to identify. If someone falls and breaks their arm, it’s immediately recognisable that they have suffered a major arm injury. When it comes to mentally ill health, the signs of illness are much more subtle and can be put down to other causes such as the employee being difficult or unmanageable. Even if the mental health problem is recognised, the next issue is what action to take. It is often not clear what actions are required, particularly when the mental health problem presents as an emergency. Consider the employee who breaks down, is crying and cannot work. What would you do? It is difficult for those managing such an employee to know what to do or where to refer the employee.
The ideal solution would be to included some basic training on how to manage mental health issues in the first aid at work training. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen in the near to the future and so a different solution needs to be identified. One option is to have specific training to deal with mental health problems and this is where the Mental Health First Aid course fits in. This course was developed in Australia and has now become popular around the world, particularly with multi-national companies as a way to help them manage employees with mental health problems.
The course in England is the responsibility of Mental Health First Aid England (MHFAE) - http://mhfaengland.org/. MHFAE oversees the course and provides training for the course trainers who deliver it. The course teaches people how to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and how to provide help on a first aid basis. It also teaches how to effectively guide employees with mental health problems in the right direction towards support.
People who have undertaken the course invariably find it useful, particularly managers, with the major benefit being their increased confidence in dealing with employees’ mental health issues. There are also major advantages to the business in training some of their staff in this way. If employees with mental health problems can be identified earlier and given suitable support within the workplace, then they will often not need to take time off work thus reducing sickness absence and promoting a better relationship between the business, their employees and a safer working environment.
Mental health issues are common and certainly have an effect on many businesses, so rather than ignore the situation, consider offering specialised training. A good place to start might be to send some of your staff on a Mental Health First Aid or Mental Health in the Workplace course with Promet - http://www.promet.org.uk.