What do Mental Health First Aiders do & why do you need them at work?

Our head of clinical governance, Suzanne Marshall RN explains why Mental Health First Aid should be front of mind for leadership teams.


We work hard to foster a caring environment at GoodShape and we’re always looking for new ways to improve our practices. In 2020, this included introducing Mental Health First Aid training for all staff, not just our advisers and nurses - an approach we encourage all companies to adopt.

The cost of mental health.

The impact of mental health issues can be massive, not only for individuals but organisations as a whole.

Before COVID-19 struck, mental health had already become the leading cause of lost working days in the UK (surpassing musculoskeletal issues in 2018).

We’ve seen a continued rise over the last three years, and it’s hardly surprising that being plunged into a pandemic has further contributed to stress and anxiety levels.

GoodShape estimates that working time lost due to mental health troubles equated to costs of £5.32bn in 2020; a £360m increase from 2019 – and that’s before administration or replacement worker fees.

According to MHFA England and St. John Ambulance, when you factor in the admin, replacing staff, and the overall impact of reduced productivity – mental health troubles cost the UK economy £35 billion every year.

Our data also shows that 54% or workers will leave their jobs after two spells of mental health-related time off.

If the right support can be given in the first instance, this worrying pattern can be disrupted.

How does Mental Health First Aid work?

Much like administering physical first aid, a swift and considered response to early signs of mental ill health can prevent a bigger, more complex issue developing.

And - as with traditional first aid - Mental Health First Aid is not intended to replace the expertise of a professional.

  • First and foremost, the benefits of early intervention to a struggling individual are proven: it’s no exaggeration to say that – for some people – getting the right support at the right time can be lifesaving. GoodShape’s nurse-led call service handled 614 life-threatening ‘Code Red’ clinical incidents in 2020, 26% of which were related to mental health crises.

  • For employers, wellbeing in the workplace is vital for staff morale and productivity, and provision of mental health training demonstrates your commitment to protecting and supporting your employees.

  • Identifying employees who are suffering with poor mental health and talking openly provides an opportunity to understand the root causes and put measures in place to help and support. The better you understand the problem, the better you can work to solve it, and prevent unnecessary recurrence.

  • By providing mental health support, employers not only protect the health of each individual employee, but also the resilience of the workforce overall.


Taking part in a Mental Health First Aid course has been proven to raise awareness of mental health troubles, encourage early intervention to aid recovery, increase confidence in dealing with mental illnesses, and reduce stigma.

Some studies suggest that improving workplace mental health management could reduce UK employers’ losses attributed to mental illness by 30%.

This article has some great information about what Mental Health First Aiders actually do and what they should be aware of in the workplace, with contributions from Stuart Payne, a Mental Health First Aid trainer for St John Ambulance and Stephen Buckley, head of information for the mental health charity Mind.

Mental Health First Aid is not quite as straightforward as treating, for instance, a cut or a burn. Signs of depression and anxiety can be challenging to spot. But there are things you can keep an eye out for:

  1. Look for behavioural change
    If a person is usually the life and soul of the party and suddenly becomes significantly more subdued (or vice versa) it’s worth checking on them.

  2. Is someone withdrawing?
    If a usually chatty person begins to eat alone, for example, it could be a sign of a problem.

  3. Watch out for physical signs
    It could be something as extreme as the signs of self harm, or simply someone losing or gaining weight.
    Taking less care of their appearance can be a subtle reflection of someone’s state of mind. To those struggling with mental health issues, simply ironing clothes or doing their hair can feel too much effort.

  4. Be aware of life situations
    If someone has had a relationship break down, a bereavement, or any other significant stress – make sure they know there is help available if needed.

  5. Check in with the person
    It doesn’t have to be a big, serious, sit-down conversation. Just a “how are things?”, but make sure you listen - really listen - to the answer.

  6. Be empathetic
    If someone starts to open up, it can be tempting to share our own ordeals – but this can be unhelpful: “Just because we’ve both shared the same experience, it doesn’t mean we felt the same way”, says Payne.

  7. Point them in the direction of help
    “With physical first aid, people generally recognise their limits”, says Payne. If someone has a severe cut, you wouldn’t try to put stitches in it for them. So with mental health, “it doesn’t mean you’ve got to be a counsellor – that’s a profession, for which it takes years to qualify”. It’s about supporting the person and encouraging them to seek professional help.

  8. Try again at a later date
    If you have tried to approach a friend out of concern for their mental health, don’t push it if they clearly don’t want to discuss it. Let them know you’re always there if they want to talk, and don’t be scared to go back and check in.

Does an employer’s duty of care include staff mental health?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Employers have a legal duty of care to provide a safe working environment for employees. Leadership teams must take reasonable care to prevent personal injury that may arise in the workplace and this includes both mental and physical harm.

What happens if we ignore mental health in the workplace?

Someone with poor mental health may not realise it, and even if they do, they may be reluctant to seek help or might not know where to turn for care. In the workplace, there is still a great deal of ignorance around mental health issues, including uncertainty about how to recognise mental illness and uncertainty about how to react when faced with it. This means that those in need of mental health help and support do not receive it.

If they’re not informed, managers and co-workers may unwittingly exhibit stigmatising behaviours, which can be detrimental to a person experiencing a mental health issue. What’s more, by failing to respond appropriately to an employee with a mental health issue, an organisation may be liable for a legal claim or compensation.

Remember: support is always available.

If you have concerns about your mental health, please contact Samaritans or NHS 111.

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