MHFA at work: good practice

Of all the practices to be implemented in support of mental health at work, the one with the fastest take up has been training Mental Health First Aiders.

Familiar with the rationale of First Aid and recognising a business’ responsibility towards both physical and mental health, it is no wonder that organisations see value in having people in the workplace who can assist and support someone experiencing emotional distress or a mental health issue.

However, successfully bringing Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) to the workplace goes beyond training – which is the easy part.

Embedding MHFA requires an implementation strategy that considers not only training but buy-in and promotion across the company as well as support for the Mental Health First Aiders themselves.

There's been a lot of research and discussion about MHFA in recent months from a debate in parliament to research undertaken by the UK's Health and Safety Executive.

Having done a review of findings and what's been said at conference, here are 11 things to consider when thinking about bringing MHFA to work.


11 things to consider when bringing MHFA to work

1. Know why you want to implement Mental Health First Aid

Truly, why do you want to train your people in Mental Health First Aid? I have heard many reasons from understanding that the earlier someone seeks assistance; the sooner recovery can start to it seems like a good idea and staff asked to do it.

If you are not clear on a business reason for bringing MHFA to work, funding such training will likely lead to poor implementation, letting down and disappointing not only those who are now trained but employees who might seek support.

Here are some reasons for you consider:

  • Make it part of a wider mental health and wellbeing strategy that looks at not only responding and reacting but prevention, protection and recovery;

  • Provide an informal resource for employees in distress;

  • Help raise awareness of mental health.

2. Get buy-in

To get traction, anything meaningful needs a champion at the top but buy-in to Mental Health First Aid also needs to cascade throughout the organisation. It is therefore wise to consider how this might be achieved.

This is especially true for those whose team members are Mental Health First Aiders. By its very nature, MHFA is different to physical first aid. It tends to be more time consuming and emotionally demanding.

Those in a supervisory role need to understand that at times Mental Health First Aiders may be taken away from their usual duties for some time.

I have found that my MHFA response sessions average about 30 minutes, far longer than it takes to apply a plaster.

3. Consider who to train

When considering who to train it’s not just about numbers.

When I speak to organisations that have trained staff to be Mental Health First Aiders, they have often talked to me about how many they have trained, choosing to have the same ratio to staff as physical First Aiders.

Whilst this is one place to start, you will want to ensure they represent the diversity of those in the organisation. This means considering positions held, culture, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. In so doing, you make sure those seeking support can find someone they feel comfortable with.

If you have already appointed, consider doing a gap analysis to determine whether you need to recruit anyone else to ensure cross business representation.


Tip! It's not necessary to train all Managers, they play a different role concerning mental health

4. Recruit for the roles

Bringing Mental Health First Aiders into the workplace is no different to filling any other vacancy; you want to recruit people with those skills and abilities that lend themselves to the role.

It is good practice to highlight the responsibilities of the role and the skills required and then advertise the positions.

Asking people to self-select for the role having reviewed what’s required ensures those who volunteer are aware of what the role entails and are sufficiently motivated to provide support to someone in need.

5. Develop MHFA procedures

Best practice and procedures weren’t generally covered in MHFA courses until spring 2019 when MHFA England provided guidance.

Unless a business had considered this prior to training, Mental Health First Aiders were left to find their own their way.

I recommend that Mental Health First Aiders keep a confidential log of all aid given and this is shared at Health and Safety review meetings. Such a log is helpful to management who can identify trends and/or the need for additional forms of support or education.

The log I have developed uses unique identifiers for individuals (last 4 numbers of mobile phones), team/department, whether the emotional distress was Personal (P) or Work-related (W), a short summary of the issue presented (no personal details), approach taken, when to follow up (if relevant) and outcome.

Additionally, I also recommend a procedure is put in place in case a risk to safety is identified.

6. Be clear on MHFA boundaries

It is important to be clear on the responsibilities of any role.

Mental Health First Aiders do not offer treatment but provide initial, informal support and encourage the person concerned to seek appropriate help when necessary.

Make sure your Mental Health First Aiders and those seeking assistance understand that they are not mental health professionals and that they are unavailable outside of working hours.

It is helpful to provide lists of organisations available that can provide professional support to someone in need outside of office hours.

7. Put in place support for Mental Health First Aiders

A) Emotional support

MHFA can be emotionally demanding. Providing a means to debrief, perhaps using a MHFA buddy system or establishing something with an external Employee Assistance Programme is a practical means to ensure support is there for Mental Health First Aiders.

Additionally encourage Mental Health First Aiders to develop a self-care plan for themselves.

B) Ongoing development in the role

You want your Mental Health First Aiders to be the best they can be, so consider how you might support their personal development in this role.

Depending on your workplace’s commitment to health and wellbeing, you might provide additional training on other aspects of wellbeing, or organise guest speakers on related topics. Not forgetting refresher training.

C) MHFA Network

Developing a Mental Health First Aid community can help MHFAs feel connected and supported. This may be a virtual network and/or regular face to face meetings.

You might also offer a locked down Yammer group for sharing experiences and asking for feedback. Procedures and guidance relating to confidentiality should be prepared if this is a route you choose to go down.

8. Plan the MHFA promotion strategy

Use all the channels available to raise awareness and maintain the profile of mental health well-being and MHFA. Remembering that not everyone who is in emotional distress will seek out a Mental Health First Aider they may instead prefer to self-direct.

Promotional channels might be: a dedicated place on the intranet; noticeboards; induction process; well-being and mental health awareness days; door stickers; posters; email signatures and newsletters.

You might also consider providing a means to identify Mental Health First Aiders using coloured lanyards, badges or lapel pins, cups or symbols on PPE (popular in construction sector). Doing so enables people to find someone they need to speak to and feel confident approaching someone they don’t know.

9. Monitor and review the programme

To know if your MHFA programme is successful, you will want to check that it is achieving what you intended – refer back to those objectives you started with.

You might:

>Evaluate staff knowledge about MHFA provision.

>Usefully engage with the Mental Health First Aiders themselves to understand use of the service, how often they are providing support, how they are finding delivery, whether they wish to step-down/continue, whether there are patterns emerging and what further support might be useful to them.

>Measure use of any dedicated webpage, EAP provision, Occupational Health conversations and absence.

10. Take a whole organisation approach

Responsibility of a business towards its employees’ mental health goes far beyond MHFA provision.

Indeed, MHFA England has always promoted a whole organisation approach to Mental Health First Aid.

It recommends that, as well as training some to be Mental Health First Aiders, all staff should be given mental health awareness training and managers specifically provided with an understanding on what role they play in preventing and protecting the mental health of employees as well as, the confidence and skills to have mental health conversations.

In other words, MHFA should be seen as one of a range of initiatives that an organisation uses to both prevent and protect employee mental health as well as support and respond, which chimes with the 2017 Thriving at Work recommendations.

11. Consider appointing a MHFA Coordinator

In large organisations a Mental Health First Aid Coordinator is appointed to oversee MHFA implementation and ongoing programme.

This person owns and develops related mental health policies and procedures, recruits for vacant positions, organises training and development, co-ordinates networks and buddy systems, provides guidance and support as well as runs all related promotional campaigns.

They generally report to the Head of Health and Safety and/or HR.

In summary

Implementing MHFA at work is more than the training and appointment of Mental Health First Aiders.

It requires careful thought about who will be trained, what procedures will they follow, how they will be supported, where will their services be promoted as well as how MHFA fits within a wider wellbeing strategy.

Following these good practice guidelines will help organisations bring MHFA to work in a way that not only supports Mental Health First Aiders but the employees whom they are there to serve.

Further reading

DWP 2017, Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers

HSE 2018, Summary of the evidence of the effectiveness of MHFA

IOSH 2019, Mental Health First Aiders: Workplace considerations

IOSH 2018, MENtal health first aid in The wORkplace (MENTOR): A feasibility study

MHFA England 2019, Implementing MHFA: a guide for employers

What do they know 2019, Example Department of Work and Pensions, Mental Health First Aider job description

All content copyright worklifemindfulness 2020 | Tracey Hewett