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How to cope with mental illness in the workplace

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How to cope with mental illness in the workplace


Mental health is a problem that affects approximately 1 in every 4 people each year, yet there is still little guidance available to employers on how to manage and help employees who may be struggling with a mental health problem.

It is thought to cost UK employers approximately £1000 per person, per year, yet despite the fact that first aid for physical health conditions is a legal requirement in most workplaces, providing first aid for mental health conditions is not considered essential. Perhaps because mental ill health is not seen as an emergency condition in the same way a broken bone, stroke or nosebleed might be.

In fact it’s only really been a concept in UK in the last 10 years, and although mental health first aiders aren’t a substitute for the medical knowledge of a professional, being able to provide a co-worker or employee with compassion and understanding in an official, albeit non-medical, capacity can make a huge difference to their well-being.

Mental Health First Aid

By having someone in the workplace who is trained to recognise signs that a co-worker may be becoming unwell, you will be in a better position to offer initial help and guide that person towards the right professional help. It could even save a life.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a training programme, designed to equip people with the knowledge to identify the crucial warning signs of an emerging mental health problem, in a very similar way to learning physical first aid.

First developed in Australia in 2000, MHFA has grown to be a recognised course in more than 23 countries and made it’s way to England in 2007. So far, they have trained over 1200 instructors in England, who have delivered courses to over 100,000 people.

They offer specialised courses for different requirements, such as MHFA Armed Forces, MHFA Schools and MHFA Workplace. The MHFA Workplace course pays particular attention to conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression.

Who can help?

The best person would most likely be an HR advisor, manager, supervisor or trusted senior colleague, simply because of their position in your company.

It’s unlikely you’ll have volunteers for the role of mental health first aider. Most people would readily accept that they don’t fully understand mental health issues and many won’t believe they are in the right position to be offering help. In the same way people are often afraid to administer physical first aid, in case they make the situation worse, people will be reluctant to help with mental ill-health.

However, anyone can be trained to ensure they know how to respond appropriately if a colleague expresses concern, appears to be struggling, or even requests help. They wouldn’t be expected to fix the problem, anymore than a physical first aider would be expected to fix a broken bone. They would just need to provide support, empathy and advice to ensure they get the right professional help.

How can they help?

As an employer, you may feel ill-equipped to help a person with any mental illness, but there are a few very simple things you can do to help reintegrate a member of staff who has been away from work and to provide continued support.

Advance statements: an advance statement, or wellness recovery action plan, explains how a person would wish to be treated if they become unwell at work in the future. The statement should be written up by the person with the mental health problem, and can include information on indicators of ill health, who to contact, their doctor’s information, what type of support is useful (and what is not), as well as more practical arrangements.

Monitoring needs: Using regular management processes to monitor and plan a return to work after an absence can really help. Structuring a return with a documented plan before the return date will help to identify when the person has returned to ‘business as usual.’ This plan can then be adapted as needs change.

Reduce workload: Ensure the person does not return to an extensive to-do list. They will likely need time to readjust to their working environment and a bottomless inbox will not help. You may have agreed a phased return to work, so ensure there is enough to fill their time, but don’t overburden them.

Informal chats: Take the time to have a regular informal chats about their health and how they are getting on. This will ensure they know that if they begin to experience a problem you are approachable and available to talk to them about it. It’s important these chats are informal, as otherwise the person may feel they are being overly-supervised or singled out as a special case.

Coping strategies: As part of their care, people suffering from a mental illness are often encouraged to develop coping strategies if they identify a trigger that could indicate a relapse. These coping strategies should always be supported. For example, it may mean the employee needs to cut back on their workload, take time to exercise or get fresh air, or find a quiet place to work undisturbed. A simple adjustment to working routine to accommodate these a coping strategies could prevent a reoccurrence of the issue.

If you’re interested in mental health first aid training for your workplace, try contacting the MHFA organisation or download their Line Managers’ Resource to find out more about how you can support your staff.   

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