Employers from a range of industries share their experiences on the impact of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programmes in their organisations. Find more information on employers’ experience of MHFA here.

Mental Health First Aid at Unilever
Nikki Kirbell, Health and Wellbeing Lead at Unilever commented: “We recognise that line managers have such a complex and varied role, so we wanted to give them the best toolkit to support their teams. To date we have trained over 50 per cent of our line managers in Mental Health First Aid skills and the feedback has been very positive from those who have attended a course.” 

“Unilever looks to embed supportive conversations as a key part of line management. For example, instead of jumping straight into performance discussions in a one-to-one, we encourage line managers to ask the employee how they are and gain a sense of their current wellbeing”.

Leading by example, senior executives have shared their own personal stories, and have been behind the programme from the beginning. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, says: “By listening and responding to their emotional needs we give people a much better chance of fulfilling their true potential, which is good for them and good for the company.”

One of the first noticeable changes since incorporating Mental Health First Aid into line management training was staff becoming more comfortable reporting mental health as a reason for sickness absence. This culture change had the added benefit of allowing the Medical and Occupational Health team to collect more accurate data and be more strategic in developing a targeted Wellbeing Strategy across the organisation’s many sites. 

The pattern of absences has started to get shorter and Nikki suggests that the increased awareness of mental health amongst staff has enabled line managers to pick up potential issues much sooner. Added to this, and because of the firm’s clear and open approach to promoting health and wellbeing, employees are more efficiently accessing support. This support is facilitating swifter, more positive recoveries, and in many cases preventing a situation from becoming a serious health issue.    

Mental Health First Aid at EY
After attending a Mental Health First Aid Two Day course, EY staff are able to provide help on a first aid basis and effectively guide a person who is experiencing a mental health issue towards the right support services. In the case of EY, this might be signposting the person to the Psychological Care Pathway or suggesting a referral to the firm’s Occupational Health team. It might also just be having a friendly chat and reassuring the person that support is available.

Explaining how the firm promoted the training, Employee Relations Manager Paul Quinlan says: “The course was offered to staff on a purely voluntary basis and we publicised it via our firm’s daily news email bulletin, the wellbeing intranet pages and our Employee Network, Ability EY, which includes a Mental Health Network. The uptake for MHFA training surpassed our expectations and the spaces filled up immediately.

We now have over 750 partners and staff trained in Mental Health First Aid and with more courses booked, this number will continue to increase over time.”

Mental Health First Aid at The Wellcome Trust
MHFA training is part of a broader strategy for wellbeing at Wellcome, with particular focus on prevention, intervention and rehabilitation. While the commitment to Mental Health First Aid comes from the top with the majority of the Senior Leadership Team having attended the courses, training opportunities are open to everyone, whatever their role.

Natasha Gordon, Project Manager in People and Places at Wellcome explains: “All employees at Wellcome are given the opportunity to attend Mental Health First Aid training sessions. We have found managers are keen to have the tools which enable them to start a meaningful conversation around mental health with their staff. Generally middle management can be more difficult to get buy-in from with this type of initiative, so their interest in learning the tools is great progress.”

The results of conversations people have with their Mental Health First Aider colleagues are logged confidentially with details of what signposting was given. Natasha explains: “This way we can see if there are any common denominating factors like high levels of anxiety in specific teams, or employees seeking support from multiple Mental Health First Aiders which we can act on as an employer.”

Mental Health First Aid at Channel 4
Mental Health First Aid training has proved extremely beneficial to staff at Channel 4. Every attendee surveyed agreed both that the training has helped them understand how to support a colleague who might have mental health issues, and that the training helped them understand how to look after their own mental health.

The lunchtime sessions were also hugely powerful in raising awareness of a wide variety of mental health issues. 88 per cent of surveyed attendees agreed that they had learnt how to spot potential signs of mental health issues, 93 per cent agreed that they would incorporate mindfulness/meditation techniques into their work or personal routines, and 78 per cent  agreed that they had learnt more about the challenges social media and technology pose to young people’s mental health.

Mental Health First Aid training has become embedded within Channel 4’s learning and development offering. Ed Smyth, Learning and Talent Manager, said: “Mental health is vital for creativity and innovation. It helps people thrive and be the best they can be.” 

There has been an increased demand for Mental Health First Aid training, particularly from line managers, whilst 4Mind, the network of internal Mental Health First Aiders, hopes to increase its internal presence and visibility.

Mental Health First Aid at WHSmith
Having worked closely with MHFA England to create a tailored approach to delivering the training to suit the nature of the business, WHSmith now has seven qualified Mental Health First Aid instructors to deliver the training and has achieved its target of matching the same number of Mental Health First Aiders as physical first aiders across the business.

Training for Line and Store Managers is well progressed with over 90 per cent of office Line Managers trained as well as the majority of Store Managers in airports, railway stations, bus stations, and hospitals trained. Work is now ongoing to train the balance of managers, including all High Street and shopping centre Store Managers. 

Stephen Clarke, CEO of WHSmith, says: “I had the opportunity to meet with business leaders in Downing Street to discuss the need for a shift in attitude to people with mental health issues in the workplace. We are all very aware of how we can protect our physical health; but most of us aren’t so knowledgeable about how to look after our mental health. The workplace can be a vital drive for change in addressing this issue, which is why we are proud to be making a commitment to training our staff in Mental Health First Aid.”

Mental Health First Aid at Royal Mail
Head of Health and Wellbeing at Royal Mail commented: “Having completed a Mental Health First Aid course myself I realised the importance of the skills taught and how beneficial the course would be to our managers. It’s crucial that all Royal Mail staff feel able to voice their concerns around mental health. To have managers professionally trained in this area is invaluable.”

The response from the Mental Health First Aid-trained managers has been overwhelming, with 77 per cent of those that took part in the pilot saying they have already put what they learnt into practice to help and advise staff. One manager explained how he was able to assist someone who was experiencing suicidal thoughts, and over half said the course has improved their understanding of mental health issues.

Mick Wood from Royal Mail’s story
Mick undertook Mental Health First Aid training in early 2016, which was arranged by the Communication Workers Union (CWU). He regularly uses the skills he learnt in his MHFA training at work, helping colleagues who may be showing signs of mental ill health. “On one occasion, I was working alongside a colleague of mine, Caroline. I’ve known her for a couple of years now, so I know when she’s having good or bad days. I could see that on this particular day she was emotional and showing signs of distress, so I approached her and asked if she wanted to get a coffee and talk.

“At the warehouse, we have a ‘quiet room’ on the floor, which has proved really useful when someone is struggling with their mental health. Caroline and I sat down in there and I encouraged her to tell me how she was feeling using my MHFA skills around listening non-judgementally. She told me that she was feeling low and having difficulties, and after discussing it thoroughly we agreed that I would speak to her manager. Together, we arranged for her to go through a rehabilitation process.”

The rehabilitation process meant that Caroline was able to continue working on reduced hours until she felt better, and meant she avoided having to go on sick leave. “In my experience, sick leave can sometimes be detrimental for mental health issues because you end up feeling isolated,” explains Mick. “Caroline was able to keep working but at a rate that suited her until she recovered.”

Mick’s Mental Health First Aid training also helped him to be more aware of what mental ill health might look like in others. “Before I did the Mental Health First Aid training, I would have found it more difficult to spot the signs of mental ill health in others,” he notes. “That might sound strange coming from someone who has depression, but in reality depression is a very insular experience and it’s hard to recognise the signs in other people. Mental Health First Aid taught me what to look out for and as a result I’m much more empathetic and able to spot when someone might be struggling.”

Mental Health First Aid at NHS England
NHS England treats mental health as equally important to physical health, an attitude which is supported at the highest level. In keeping with this, Mental Health First Aid is not treated as a stand-alone scheme but as a key component of the whole organisation’s approach to health and wellbeing.

Sandra Winters, former Head of Wellbeing and Corporate Responsibility at NHS England, explains that the course works smoothly alongside other policies and procedures: “We recently updated the return to work interview process so that everyone who has been off sick is asked if they have received support from an Mental Health First Aider, reminding them of the support available at work. There’s a lot of evidence to say that returning to work and keeping active can be an important part of someone’s recovery.

“Our Supporting Attendance at Work policy encourages people to measure their own health and flags up areas where they may need more support, which might include talking to an Mental Health First Aider. It also works well alongside our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy - through Mental Health First Aid people gain a greater understanding of their colleagues who have mental health illnesses and disabilities.”

Sandra notes that getting involved with mental health has seemed to develop people’s self-esteem and confidence encouraging them to become engaged in other areas. A survey conducted on the Mental Health First Aiders’ intranet group found, on top of a 99 per cent increase in understanding of mental health, a 91 per cent increase in personal confidence.

And these opportunities for personal development have brought about a wider cultural change. “In regions where we have higher volumes of qualified Mental Health First Aiders, we’re seeing a lot more positive activity and engagement. Employees regularly take part in campaigns to promote health and wellbeing such as One You recently launched by Public Health England. A group in Liverpool have created their own network which runs mental health events throughout the year. We want to encourage other areas of the organisation to create these mini networks as it has worked so well there.”

Mental Health First Aid at Public Health Dorset
Commenting on the organisation’s uptake of Mental Health First Aid training a spokesperson for Public Health Dorset said, “Council workers encounter lots of people throughout the community and are in a good position to help. Our staff are now more confident to discuss mental health issues. Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t do anything about this’ they might instead ask, ‘Are you alright? Shall I call your GP?’. Or they might escalate it to their manager for action, saying, ‘something is not right, what should we do?’” 

Six months on, 83 per cent of those trained said it had helped them in the workplace. 90 per cent said they were now confident to respond to a mental health issue and 73 per cent said the training had helped in their personal lives. Workers’ lives, at home and in the workplace, have benefited. So have those they serve, the public – and the team is in no doubt that lives have been saved.