The Limits of Mental Health First Aiders in the Workplace

Paul Dodd
November 23, 2023
min read

In recent years, many workplaces have made commendable strides in providing support for employee mental health. One popular approach has been the implementation of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs), individuals trained to offer initial support to those experiencing mental health challenges. While the intentions behind this initiative are laudable, it's crucial to acknowledge the potential flaws inherent in relying solely on MHFAs as the cornerstone of mental health support in the workplace.

The Good Intentions:

Before diving into the limitations, let's acknowledge the positive aspects of having Mental Health First Aiders on board. These well-intentioned individuals undergo some training to recognise signs of mental distress, provide initial support, and guide individuals toward professional help. The intention being that having someone in the office with a deeper understanding of the issues that impact on and relate to mental health is a good thing - we agree.

The Human Limitation:

However, it's essential to recognise the limitations of MHFAs. Mental health is a complex and nuanced field, and expecting non-professionals to be the sole guardians of employee well-being can be akin to asking the receptionist at your GP to do your knee replacement. MHFAs may offer initial aid but, with two days training to become certified, they lack the in-depth knowledge and training required for comprehensive mental health support. Be careful not to overwhelm them. 

The One-Size-Fits-All Approach:

Picture this: an employee faces stress at work, and the MHFA swoops in armed with well-meaning advice based on what they’ve learnt and read online. However, mental health is not a one-size-fits-all puzzle. What works for one person may not be effective, and could even be damaging, for another. MHFAs, while trained, may inadvertently apply a generalised approach to unique situations — sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn't. 

They are not trained to be therapists or psychiatrists but they can offer initial support through non-judgemental listening and guidance. Their role is to be the point of contact, encourage early intervention and to direct to appropriate support; not to provide the support themselves.

The Stigma Dilemma:

While MHFAs aim to reduce the stigma around mental health conversations, their presence can inadvertently perpetuate it. Employees may hesitate to approach MHFAs for fear of being labelled internally as "the one with issues." Employees can feel that sharing potentially sensitive information about their mental health challenges with someone internal to the business may limit their career progression. This unintended consequence can hinder open dialogue and prevent individuals from seeking help when they need it most.

The Lack of Continuity:

MHFAs are most often selected from existing employees, adding the role to their often already full plate. We have heard of many who aren’t given adequate time to complete this role effectively. 

Not to mention, who supports your team during your MHFAs holidays, illness, absence; evenings and weekends? Imagine an A&E department that's only open during office hours — it's not particularly helpful during a midnight or weekend crisis. Is your mental health support offering helping your employees when they need it most?

Navigating the Flaws:

While MHFAs play a vital role, they should not be the sole custodians of employee well-being. In the grand tapestry of workplace mental health, Mental Health First Aiders can be valuable threads, but they can't weave the entire fabric. Acknowledge the limitations and complement their efforts with a broader mental health strategy that ensures that employees have access to the diverse and comprehensive support they need.

Your mental health strategy should be supporting MHFA’s. Providing them an appropriate place to signpost where they know that colleagues can engage anonymously, without fear of stigma, and receive professional support, quickly and at any time. It’s imperative that your strategy has buy-in from leadership, is prioritised and discussed regularly to encourage open conversations about mental well-being. 

If you’d like to learn more about how we can support your MHFA’s, wider mental health strategy and embedding mental health culture change within your organisation get in touch here

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