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Elizabeth D'Arcy-Malone


CIPD Level 5Learning & Development Tutor

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Breaking the stigma: why every office needs a Mental Health First Aider


Depression, anxiety, stress - mental health issues in the workplace are cause for concern for many employers. 

According to the HSE stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 9.9 million days lost to work related ill health between 2014/2015.

If absenteeism is having an impact on organisations, consider the impact of presenteeism to the organisation’s bottom line - and that’s before we even start to throw leaveism into the equation!

As a person who has ‘suffered’(and I use the word suffer deliberately, as this is not just a case of feeling a bit down, or “having an off day”), my experiences of how my illness has been dealt with/supported during my working life has varied greatly.

A vicious circle

As someone who has been in Learning & Development for the majority of my working life, I know all too well how difficult it is to deliver training when it has taken all of your energy to just get out of bed.  

To stand in front of a group of eager and enthusiastic students/learners/delegates and not let them see how much anguish and torment you are experiencing is no mean feat, I can tell you! Sometimes it’s just not do-able. So then you decide to ring in sick; this exacerbates the feelings of worthlessness, and makes you question your abilities and adds to the feelings of guilt (which is a constant companion).  

Self loathing and self hatred are emotions I have felt on many an occasion, as I questioned my ability to perform my role and also agonised over how my colleagues perceive me due to my depression. Whilst compassion and empathy for physical illness are often plentiful, this is often not the case when people are dealing with mental ill health. 

People often just don’t know what to do for fear of making someone feel worse

I remember receiving a bouquet of flowers after having a hip replacement, when I was off with depression, not so much as a ‘we’re thinking about you’ card which would have made me feel much less isolated and also cared for by my colleagues.

However, I am not apportioning blame as I have seen this all too frequently. Unfortunately there is still so much stigma which accompanies mental ill health; people often just don’t know what to do for fear of making someone feel worse. So, here lies the rub…..people don’t know what to say, and there is still the perception (in some cases) that depression is an easy excuse for someone who may wish to swing the lead for a few days. 

I remember someone commenting that ‘back-pain’ was the go-to excuse for ‘pulling a sickie’ but this has now been replaced by ‘depression/anxiety/stress’. As professionals we need to challenge these perceptions and look at how we can address them.

A lack of understanding

In my last role, I worked with organisations to help them assess themselves against standards in the Workplace Wellbeing Charter (a framework to see how they performed in terms of workplace health and wellbeing against eight standards, including mental health).  

An issue which came up time after time was the lack of understanding by line managers around mental illness. Employees were often scared and anxious about making that telephone call to say they just couldn’t make it in to the workplace. Once the phone call had been made, some absence policies and procedures stipulated that the employee had to phone their line manager every day which can exacerbate the anxiety which is already felt by the individual. 

The ‘return to work’ interview is often construed as a 'checking up on me' interview

Following that, the ‘return to work’ interview is often construed as a 'checking up on me' interview, and coupled with policies which may invoke disciplinary proceedings, if you have had more than a certain number of periods of sickness, this does nothing to quell the distress. 

Again a greater understanding of mental ill health and how to support individuals is paramount in helping the individual eliminate anxiety caused by being absent. Some organisations use Wellness Recovery Action Plans, which can be of great help to both individual and business when someone has a recurring illness (this isn’t confined to purely mental ill health).

The confidence to support

I first attended Mental Health First Aid training in 2010 and was fascinated by the concept. Why do we have First Aid trainers in organisations to support people who may have had an accident and are in distress or need attention but for anyone who may be experiencing mental distress, their needs aren’t addressed?

Fast forward six years and I am now a MHFA Trainer which allows me to use my training skills and my experience of depression to inform and educate people around Mental Health. What’s the point I hear you ask, surely any compassionate member of a team would go to help a colleague if they were distressed? Well of course, in an ideal world that would happen. However, is everyone in your workforce equipped to deal with someone who may be having a psychotic episode?

Mental Health First Aid equips individuals with skills to feel confident in supporting someone who is experiencing distress

If you spot cigarette burns on the arms of your line manager, would you feel comfortable having that conversation? Your team leader is stressed and tired because their teenage son is behaving erratically and is saying he is being watched by M15 and he is hearing voices. Could you deal with that? Mental Health First Aid equips individuals with knowledge and skills to feel confident in supporting someone who is experiencing distress and can offer techniques to support that person until professional help is accessed.

This isn’t about being a counsellor, and this is made blatantly clear on the course, the same way that undertaking a First Aid at Work course does not make you an A&E doctor. It is about being there in those first moments of distress when, to the person experiencing anguish their world is crashing down around them.

These skills are not just confined to the workplace either as  I know I can call on them at any time. However, this is also about educating people about the impact mental ill health can have on not just the individual themselves, but also their loved ones, colleagues, friends etc. It’s about understanding that we’re not just 'swinging the lead' we’re not 'mardy arses' we can’t just "pull ourselves together” whilst hoisting our chins up. If only it were that simple! 

So a call to arms. Please help break the stigma. Consider equipping your teams, co-workers, colleagues and line managers with the knowledge, confidence and skills to support those in distress. You wouldn’t believe the difference you could make to someone. Surely that’s worth it?

8 Responses

  1. Please watch this film and
    Please watch this film and share it as widely as possible. Mental Health is a serious issue for businesses and people alike and it needs to be tackled. As one of our interviewees says if one in 6 employees had an accident at work in any one year there would be an outcry but because its mental health little is being done…

  2. I’m working on an article
    I’m working on an article about accommodation generally – the stigma is huge… As someone who suffers from a chronic health condition, depression is always a risk and I’d love to see greater understanding in the workplace. A mental health first aided is a great idea!

  3. Tricky one this………I
    Tricky one this………I guess that mirrors much of what is said………but I feel compelled to make some statement especially on behalf of small Employers.

    See, the idea of a mental health first aider makes much sense for larger organisations, but for the owner of a small business with, say, 8 Employees, it is not so easy. In many cases they are close enough to their people to sense when something is wrong………..the problem they face is where to go for help.

    So my first recommendation is to the groups out there in the community who deal with mental health issues, to focus more on helping businesses. In New Zealand I am unaware of many such organization who deliberately visit on businesses offering help. They tend more to wait for people to contact them, and that for a business person is not easy. Much easier for family or friend to make the contact.

    My second recommendation is for commentators/ consultants/advisers to be a little more accurate when apportioning blame on Employers. Of course the workplace bully and the unacceptable work loads are important factors, but we need to consider how much outside influences bring about mental health issues……….and let’s not forget that small Employer’s mental health who has mortgaged much of what they own on the line to make the business work. In my long experience in industrial relations it oftentimes appears so easy to load more and more on to Employers. Just be accurate in apportioning “blame”. For the same reason I have much sympathy for teachers who are increasingly being called on to do what parents should be doing.

    ………and my third recommendation is to begin targeting top management when it comes to equipping folk with the skills etc to recognize and then deal with mental health issues. Have we forgotten that if front line managers are not doing their job in this or any respect, then how come their boss and their bosses boss is not called to account? I believe we have forgotten, and it is about time we began to put responsibility back up the line.

    Good article. Cheers. DonR.

    1. Some very good points Don –
      Some very good points Don – especially the one about giving board members and senior management more training on mental health issues; it makes sense if they’re the ones setting the agenda and culture in their organisations.

  4. Brilliant idea but
    Brilliant idea but implementing might be another thing. I would def. say we need Mental Aid First Aider in all large organisations.

    Thanks for sharing it and this would be something I will raise it with my organisation. You don’t get if you don’t ask!

  5. If anyone is interested, I
    If anyone is interested, I have prepared a section for Employer Handbooks, prepared in collaboration with our local suicide prevention folk as well as the local workplace support group [previously Workplace Chaplains], which I recommend to my clients, covering this topic. I’m more than happy to share without cost; just let me have your email address.

    Cheers. DonR.

  6. As I’m currently trying to
    As I’m currently trying to deal with anxiety-induced stress and having been off work for a couple of weeks with a sense-of-humour failure, this has been worth a read; thank you.
    Though I’m back at work I have the feeling of isolation you described and yesterday morning, for example, I sat at my desk in a state of paralysis whilst a storm of contradicting arguments (logic vs emotion) went on in my head.
    If there was someone I could have gone to talk to about it…yes, that would have been so much more helpful in getting some stability. It’s an good concept, but getting it introduced might not be easy.
    I’ve attached a You Tube clip that describes the Black Dog that you might find of interest…

Author Profile Picture
Elizabeth D'Arcy-Malone

CIPD Level 5Learning & Development Tutor

Read more from Elizabeth D'Arcy-Malone

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