Britain is training record numbers of workplace “mental health first aiders” to confront a sharp rise in people expressing mental distress, though evidence of success is mixed, according to a Guardian study.
Requests sent to every FTSE 100 company show that they alone have trained more than 10,000 staffers, while mid-tier and even tiny businesses are appointing first responders who can be approached confidentially by those with depression, anxiety, stress and other conditions.
A national training body, Mental Health First Aid England, said 140,000 people were trained in 2018-19 – the most ever in a single year, from local hairdressers to employees in global corporations.
Almost half a million people in Britain have now been through an MHFA programme – about one in every 100 adults.
“We have worked in more than 20,000 businesses and organisations,” said its chief executive, Simon Blake. “The exciting thing for me is that training courses are as likely to have someone from a shop in Doncaster as from a City firm.”
In terms of numbers, big firms lead the way. More than half the FTSE 100 companies have mental health first aiders (some call them “buddies”, “champions”, “advocates” or even “be well allies”). Lloyds Banking Group has a programme to train 2,500 by next year, while National Grid and Severn Trent both have more than 1,000.
The BBC, NHS and other firms including Goldman Sachs are in on the act. The construction and finance sectors seem particularly keen. Government departments have trained prodigious numbers: the Department for Work and Pensions alone has more than 1,000, according to Blake.
But there is concern that mental health first aiders are being viewed as a panacea when actually their impact can be quite limited.
In a report last year, the Health and Safety Executive concluded: “There is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental ill health.” Academic research has found that training is good for raising awareness, but unproven as a strategy for improving mental health.
Experts in workplace health warn that some recruits might not be the best people for what is a subtle role, and warn that first aiders need support and supervision themselves to ensure their own wellbeing. They add that a two-day training course does not produce instant experts.
Alan Bradshaw, a business psychologist, said: “My main problem with it is that organisations see it as a tick in the box. It’s essentially reactive, when what they really need to be doing is the preventive bit, the proactive management of stress risks at work.”
Dr Jo Billings, a consultant clinical psychologist at UCL, said: “There are pros and cons. Anything that raises people’s understanding of mental health is a really good thing. But it’s not sufficient to tackle mental illness in the workplace.”
While some companies may be keen to simply tick boxes, others say that their first aider programmes are part of a bigger strategy. Some offer free subscriptions to digital tools such as Headspace and Unmind. Others provide counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for staff. Many have confidential helplines, often known as employee assistance programmes.
Mental health first aiders volunteer for the role and typically complete a two-day training session. They are not counsellors, psychologists or experts, but simply first responder “listeners” who can signpost services.
Imogen Truphet, who works at the School of Life in London, says the intense two-day course gave her confidence to respond to distressed colleagues without saying the wrong thing.
“You listen without judgment, you give them information and support but you don’t give them advice,” she says. “You encourage them to seek the appropriate professional help – mostly but not always about going to your GP – and encourage them to talk to family and friends.”
Natalie Rose, a wellbeing champion for HS2, says: “The first thing you have to do is listen. Show some understanding, compassion, have patience, point them in the right direction of where they can get some support.”
“If there was someone I was wildly concerned about I would let them know that I had a duty of care to speak to someone else about it. It’s a fine line because we do not replace any trained medical specialists.”
Mental health first aid came to the UK from Australia in the 2000s, but took a long while to take off. Trainee numbers were low until the middle of this decade, when concerns over the sharp rise in the number of people presenting with mental distress prompted a response from business.
Blake agrees that MHFAs alone will not transform the psychological wellbeing of a company or organisation, and emphasises that it has to be part of a bigger strategy that includes work-life balance and managing the sources of stress in the workplace.
“Mental health first aid on its own is not enough,” he said. “We need to ensure prevention, early intervention, job design and to ensure that people are not tied to phones and emails all the time.
“Mental health first aid works best in an organisation that has started thinking of things like this.”
Niki Garcha-Davies has worked for six years in Lloyds’ risk division. Last year she did the two-day training course to become a mental health advocate, and quickly found herself applying her new-found skills.
“I take part in charity fundraisers and earlier this year I went on a walk with some colleagues. We went off in a big group and I started talking to one colleague about why I was doing the walk. It was easy to get to the conversation of mental health. My colleague started talking about their own situation.
“I just made sure they were aware of the resources available to us – the Headspace app is free, for example. I spoke about how I’d used it and also about how the employee assistance programme is just a phone call away. They contacted me afterwards to say how much they had appreciated the chat, they had used the app and were planning to reach out to the assistance programme.”