Craig Burton

Why Every Company Needs a Mental Health First Aider

As the fastest growing city in the UK, Leeds boasts over 119,000 companies which together generate 5% of England’s economic output. With a £64.6 billion economy – which has grown by 40% in the last decade - the Leeds City Region is home to a combined population of three million, and a workforce of 1.37 million. However, it should never be forgotten that behind these impressive figures are individual workers – each with their own challenges and struggles.

According to a recent survey of 44,000 people carried out by the mental health charity, Mind, poor mental health affects half of all employees - that’s around 700,000 workers in our region alone.

Mental health in the workplace is a national concern. New figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, reveal that work-related stress, anxiety or depression now account for over half of all sickness absence in the UK for the first time ever.

However, our area is arguably more at risk than most. The Leeds Mental Health Framework, put together by the three NHS CCGs in Leeds, Leeds City Council, Volition and Leeds Involving People, outlines how the city has significantly higher rates of hospital admission for unipolar depressive disorders, dementia and schizophrenia than the country average.

While the reasons behind this anomaly are unclear, it seems that that we do work harder than most: in terms of productivity per hour worked- the headline measure of economic performance - Leeds records the second highest GVA of all English core cities, at £28.90 per hour.

It is also worth noting that the nature of industry which defines the area includes a high percentage of sectors where long or unsociable hours are commonplace. For example, according to a survey by Business in the Community (BITC) in partnership with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, financial services jobs are 44 percent more likely to cause a stress-related illness than the average role in the UK – and Leeds is the UK’s second largest financial centre.

Against this backdrop, it is crucial that business leaders in the region and beyond develop and implement strategies to ensure that there is a safety net in place to catch workers who may be at risk of becoming unwell. And investing in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training for employees is a logical first step.

A recent poll by the Institute of Directors found fewer than one in five firms offer mental health training for managers. And while around 185,000 people have received MHFA training in the UK, we are campaigning for it to become mandatory for every business which employs 30 or more people to have a dedicated mental health first aider. In our own experience as a business, mental health conditions can have devastating consequences if not addressed. As a recruitment consultancy which manages contingent labour, we were rocked to the core when one of our contractors – a young father from Bradford - sadly took his own life last year. I cannot help but think that if one of our own team, or someone at the company where he was working, had been trained in MHFA, we may have been able to spot the tell-tale signs that something was wrong.

While we can’t turn back the clock, we have ensured that all our consultants are now trained in mental health first aid, and we are urging other businesses to do the same so that they are better equipped to spot the signs of workplace stress or anxiety. Frequent absenteeism, erratic behaviour or a fall in productivity may be indicators that someone needs help. Our people are also trained to listen, give reassurance and information, and encourage appropriate professional help as well as self-help.

Previous research from Mind found that over half (56%) of employers would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing, but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance. MHFA training offers clear, practical guidelines through the ‘ALGEE’ model, with professionals taught how to: assess risk; listen non-judgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage professional help and encourage informal support. Over the next ten years, the local economy is forecast to grow by 21%, with financial and business services set to generate more than half of GVA growth over that period. However, with success comes responsibility.

There is no doubt that employers have a moral duty to support the mental health of their workforces and, as we know only too well, investing in MHFA has the potential to save not only money – it could also save lives.

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