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Workplaces Can Benefit From a Mental Health First Aid Program

Published on 5/12/2017

The prevalence of mental health issues among the general health population is something that greatly affects employers across the country and the world. Anything organizations can do to foster a culture of inclusion and support of mental health — and not just physical health — will pay dividends for the employer.

Too often, the distinction between physical health and mental health is overly pronounced. But we live in both our bodies and our brains every day; we can't afford to think of mental health as an "extra" piece that is often treated separately from physical health. Organizations and business leaders can foster mental health awareness by providing mental health education and supportive services as part of an open and accepting culture.

The prevalence of mental illness in the workplace

Mental health resides on a continuum — the classification of mental health can't be easily distilled into being mentally ill or mentally well. In our daily lives, we all interact with individuals who fall at various points along the mental health spectrum, regardless of whether they are officially diagnosed with a mental illness or substance abuse disorder. Along those lines, we can't ignore the impact mental health can have on engagement, productivity and relationships at work, as well as in the personal lives of our colleagues.

Organizations and business leaders both in and outside of the health care industry should care about the mental health of their employees. The prevalence of both mental illness and substance use disorder, though sometimes unrecognized, is high. On average, one in five adults will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Of those individuals, approximately two-thirds do not receive treatment. Additionally, one in 10 full-time workers experience a substance use disorder.

Some of the effects of untreated mental illness in the workplace include:

  • Frequent time away from work, which may result in absenteeism, employee dissatisfaction and attrition
  • Presenteeism, in which employees are physically present at their jobs but are not fully focused or functioning
  • Productivity declines, which can result in procrastination, missed deadlines and lower quality results

We should be concerned that mental illness causes more days of work loss and work impairment than any other chronic health condition, including arthritis, asthma, back pain, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Employees experiencing unresolved depression are estimated to lose 35 percent of their productivity each week. Factors like these can not only impact the bottom line in an organization, but they can also dramatically impact employee quality of life.

Organizations and business leaders need to understand that mental illness is a legitimate concern that should be treated and not ignored. By providing mental health services and supports, organizations are able to see a return on their investment in the form of reduced sick days, increased productivity and increased employee satisfaction. Not only are employers able to see gains in productivity and satisfaction, but they also typically experience longer employee retention.

Mental Health First Aid: It works

Professional help for mental illness isn't always readily available, particularly in work settings. However, we're slowly starting to see employee mental health programs become more common, and that's because people are asking for it.

There are various strategies for implementing workplace mental health education and support programs, but one of the more successful is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a globally recognized program that originated in Australia in 2001. Employees get certified in MHFA when a company sends employees to an eight-hour course where they learn the skills to help someone with a mental illness or who is experiencing a mental health crisis. Trained employees are then able to use skills and techniques learned during the MHFA course to provide aid to an individual in need until appropriate professional treatment and support are received.

Mental Health First Aid teaches individuals to identify signs and symptoms, assess for risk and listen nonjudgmentally, without attempting to diagnose or clinically treat an individual. Mental Health First-Aiders (as they are known once they receive certification) are also able to encourage and support individuals in the use of self-help strategies, as well as direct persons to appropriate professional services for the purposes of clinical care. MHFA programs in work settings are designed to encourage an open environment where employees are more willing to share their emotional state and challenges they're facing while helping one another.

The difference between a concerned colleague and someone trained in MHFA is knowing the right way to approach and interact with someone experiencing a mental health crisis. As a friend or co-worker, a person might just walk up to someone, put their arm around them and ask, "What's wrong?" Sometimes, that's all it takes — but more often, additional techniques are needed to identify, de-escalate and provide support during a crisis situation. MHFA simply provides us with tools and direction regarding how to approach a friend or colleague, handle a situation and where to point them for professional help.

There is also a realized benefit to communities when employers offer MHFA training to their employees. The knowledge and skills gained through training don't just stay within the walls of a workplace, they extend to the places where employees live and socialize. MHFA-trained employees are well-equipped to disseminate knowledge and use newly acquired skills with family, friends and members of the local community.

Implementing a mental health program in a corporate setting

Too often, organizations don't think about providing mental health services or supports to their employee population. Companies that aren't focused on health care may drive right past mental health — not fully recognizing the implications of their employee base being healthy in both body and mind to be productive at work every day. By contrast, physical health and wellness are frequently considered.

Think about it this way: Most of us know what CPR is, and that it is widely taught to employees in companies around the world. Organizations offer this training so that employees can help someone who is experiencing a physical health crisis. But what about someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis?

Workplace mental health programs — like MHFA — are based on the same premise as CPR. However, unlike CPR, there's a lot of stigma associated with mental health. Often, organizations and business leaders believe that offering mental health education or services could lead to precarious legal situations. What they don't realize is that for CPR and MHFA equally, there are good Samaritan laws to protect those who intervene in crisis situations.

The anticipated cost may be another prohibitive factor for employers adopting mental health programs. When companies talk about the cost of implementing a program like MHFA, though, what they should be thinking about instead is the cost of not having one in place. On average, employee mental health and substance use issues cost employers in the U.S. between $80 billion and $100 billion a year.

Creative, grassroots approaches to implementing mental health programs at an organization also shouldn't be ruled out. For example, if a small number of employees at an organization are able to receive training to become certified instructors in MHFA, they could potentially begin training other employees internally at a minimal cost. This would require a modest initial investment which could result in the ability to offer a sustainable MHFA training program. Additionally, internal resources and supplies may be used to help defray costs associated with training and improve access for employees.

Health for employees shouldn't just be defined by what takes place from the neck down. When companies adopt strategies to integrate mental health education and supports into their employee health and wellness programs, they are contributing to a greatly needed paradigm shift toward integrated care. In this new paradigm, we are encouraging companies and employers to promote, support and engage in holistic health and wellness. Thinking and doing something about employee health to include the whole person will yield future dividends for employers and employee populations.

Interested in bringing Mental Health First Aid to your organization? Check out the MHFA website for more information.

We believe in an integrated health system that meets the patients where they are, regardless of their condition or needs. With our Behavioral Health solutions, health care providers can help patients live a more stable life by providing holistic, data-driven, preventative and supportive care plans and services unique to each person. Learn more here.