Call for 'whole-system approach' to tackle workplace mental health issue gaps

Representatives from across industry have called for a whole-system approach to mental health in the workplace, as a new study revealed gaps in the way organisations tackle issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and psychosis.

Published by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), findings from research by The University of Nottingham reveals both positives and areas for concern, including inadequate boundaries for employees and a lack of proof that MHFA is effective.

At the Institute of Directors in London, experts from a range of bodies, including IOSH, the TUC, mental health charity Mind, CIPD and the Health and Safety Executive met to discuss the findings and shape new guidance for businesses.

IOSH will soon issue new guidance to the safety and health profession and business following today’s talks.

Duncan Spencer, IOSH Head of Advice and Practice, said: “Today’s discussion highlighted the benefits of mental health first aid and some of the pitfalls if it isn’t made a part of a holistic approach.

“Mental Health First Aid can help to raise awareness in an organisation and improve the way it responds to mental health problems affecting employees. But participants also echoed other issues raised in our research, including a lack of knowledge on its effectiveness as an intervention.

Investigation and learning

“What is clear is that the mental health first aider role needs to be well defined and boundaries set. It is imperative that mental health first aid provision is captured, that cases are analysed through investigation and learning used to develop and enhance organisational policies and procedures relating to mental wellbeing.

“Sadly, one indication found was that some organisations are using mental health first aid to ‘tick a box’ and are failing to use the intervention as part of a comprehensive approach to tackling problems.

“The good news is that Health & Safety professionals are well placed with the knowhow of how to design and implement good mental wellbeing policies and management systems.”

Principal investigator Professor Avril Drummond, from the School of Health Sciences at The University of Nottingham, said: “Our research found examples of excellent practice in rolling out the mental health first aid training where there were clearly strategies in place to support staff who felt confident in their role.

“However, we also found examples where staff felt unsupported and where, for example, they had co-workers contacting them outside working hours: there were significant issues around lack of clarity with boundaries and potential safety concerns for the trained person.”

Raising awareness

The research team investigated the implementation, use and utility of MHFA in workplaces, surveying people from 81 UK organisations, 89.9% of whom had taken part in MHFA training and also conducted interviews with key workplace representatives.

“We became interested in this topic as we were aware of the amount of publicity and resources being put into Mental Health First Aid training despite very little research to support it,” added Professor Drummond.

“Our research found that, while MHFA appeared to be a useful “vehicle” for raising awareness around mental health issues, we do not know whether it is the best or only means of doing so or indeed whether it is cost-effective.

“There were wide variations in expectations of the responsibilities of the trained person within different workplaces.”

One respondent described how there had been: “...a few situations where people have given personal contact details, and somebody’s phoning them in the middle of the night and it’s got completely out of hand.”

Where MHFA is used well in workplaces, the researchers identified several ‘active ingredients’ for success. These include: * clear vision and rationale for introducing the course and managerial support * enthusiastic coordinators who encourage support, champion the programme within the organisation and post-training, deal with issues and concerns, and lead a network * mandatory recording of formal interactions * a community or network of active trained members

Further research required

The Nottingham team recommends further research and evaluation into the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of MHFA training, and a clear definition of the trained person’s role within the organisation, with guidelines for roles, boundaries and safeguarding procedures.

They suggest MHFA training should incorporate more evaluation opportunities at different times after training has been given; a review of the standard adult MHFA two-day course, its length, format and content; and the provision of refresher training to trained members, to give them the opportunity to refresh skills, knowledge and awareness.

This study’s limitations must be considered. All data collected were from UK-based organisations and individuals who had an interest in MHFA.

The full report and resources are available at: