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The importance of Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

A new report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has found that stress, anxiety and depression were the cause of half of all work-related illnesses in 2020-2021, with the overall numbers of employees absent with self-reported work-related stress, depression and anxiety being higher than pre-covid levels. They identified that in 2019/20 there were an estimated 828,000 workers affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Prior to the pandemic, the reasons for this work-related stress included rising workloads, bullying and changes at work, however, this year’s report indicates that Covid-19 issues have been a major contributor factor.

As such, it is important that employers are able to recognise the signs of stress, manage the factors that can contribute towards it, and put appropriate measures in place.

Mental Health charity Mind highlight that everybody may experience stress differently.  As such, it is important not to assume that just because somebody isn’t acting in a certain way, that must mean that they are ok.  Mind identify the following as potential signs of stress:

  • Behaving irritably, aggressively, in an impatient manner, or seeming wound up;
  • Feeling over-burdened;
  • Feeling anxious, nervous or afraid;
  • Having the sense that your thoughts are racing and you can’t switch off;
  • Being unable to enjoy yourself;
  • Feeling depressed;
  • Being uninterested in life;
  • Feeling like you’ve lost your sense of humour;
  • Having a sense of dread;
  • Worrying about your health;
  • Feeling neglected or lonely.

Individuals may be able to recognise these signs in themselves, but colleagues should also be aware of them in others; a sudden change in how somebody is can be a warning sign. Spotting changes can be harder when working and communicating virtually too, and so it is important for managers to check in with their team regularly.

Not all stress is work-related; people may be stressed by things happening in their personal lives. However, the figures at the start of this article show that work-related stress is not something that can be ignored. The HSE identify the following causes of stress in the workplace:

Demands – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment

Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work

Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues

Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour

Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles

Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation

Although employers may not be able to fully prevent all of these things (e.g. a change may be necessary), being aware of these causes of stress and managing them with care is important.

In addition to managing the above, the CIPD 2021 Health and wellbeing at work survey report identifies the most common methods used to identify and reduce stress in the workplace:

  • Employee assistance programme;
  • Staff surveys and/or focus groups to identify causes;
  • Flexible working options/improved work–life balance;
  • Risk assessments/stress audits;
  • Training aimed at building personal resilience (such as coping techniques, mindfulness);
  • Training for line managers to manage stress;
  • Involvement of occupational health specialists;
  • Written stress policy/guidance;
  • Stress management training for the whole workforce.

Another measure that employers are increasingly putting in place to support their employees is the introduction of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs), who are colleagues from across the business who, in addition to their usual responsibilities, volunteer to undertake the role (much like a First Aider in the more traditional sense, or a Fire Marshall).

MHFAs receive training arranged by their employer, which enables them to:

  • Learn about mental health and how to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue
  • Help your workplace managers to develop their skills and knowledge to have effective mental health conversations with their teams

St John Ambulance identifies a number of benefits to MHFA training, including raising awareness of mental illnesses, encouraging early intervention to aid recovery, increasing confidence in dealing with mental illnesses and reducing stigma around mental health issues.

There are a range of measures that employers can take to support employees who are experiencing stress.  If you are an employer and are concerned about a certain employee’s wellbeing, or would like to explore other options for supporting the wider workforce, ViewHR can help. Please contact us today for an initial discussion.