Started MHFA training
Staff trained so far
91 Mental Health First Aiders (Two Day)
138 Mental Health Aware (Half Day)
One of the world’s leading universities is carving out a reputation for staff wellbeing as well as academia. With 17,405 students and 4,119 staff this year, the University of York takes seriously its duties to provide a healthy working environment.
In recent years this Russell Group university has launched a comprehensive staff Health and Wellbeing Project focusing on three core areas of health: ‘Get fit’, ‘Eat well’ and ‘Feel good’. A key part of the university’s strategy in this area is delivering Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses to its staff.
Helen Selvidge, Assistant HR Director, explains that there were three main drivers behind the focus on staff mental health as part of York University’s Health and Wellbeing Project. “Like most organisations, the university has seen staff reporting stress over the past few years. While we had systems in place to assist staff such as an employee assistance programme and a good range of flexible working options, we identified an opportunity to provide another level of bespoke training to empower staff to understand issues around mental health and how to deal with them.”
The second driver was the desire to tackle the university’s leading cause of sickness absence. Helen says, “Overall universities tend to have low levels of absences compared to other employers, and so did we. However, mental health related illness – most commonly stress, anxiety and depression – was our highest cause of absence.” These figures are in line with rates in the general UK working population where mental health issues are the single biggest cause of sickness absence.
The third driver for change was the desire to empower our staff to support students who are experiencing mental health issues. Helen says: "Thankfully, we experience few critical incidents but when they did occur, we had robust process in place to provide support to the peer groups and families of students affected. However, we didn't offer the kind of training that staff need to be able to support students who are experiencing a mental health issue. Whether they are a dissertation supervisor, a tutor, or administrative staff, these people are talking to and dealing with students on a day to day basis and we didn’t feel they had been given the training to have some of those difficult conversations. This was another major driver – to give them the tools to handle this type of situation.”
“As a university it was essential for us to choose a training programme with a solid evidence base that would be able to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The more we researched it the more we could see how MHFA would apply to any university community.”
Once the gap in staff support had been identified, Helen and her team set about finding an appropriate training programme to help managers develop an understanding around stress, wellbeing and mental health. Jo Hardy, Health and Safety Adviser came across MHFA England’s training through a colleague. Jo says, “What piqued our interest in MHFA was that a member of university staff had attended a course independently and spoke very highly of it. From her report, we could see that it had high potential to be rolled out at the university.”
Around the decision to choose MHFA training, Jo explains: “As a university it was essential for us to choose a training programme with a solid evidence base that would be able to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The more we researched it the more we could see how MHFA would apply to any university community.”
Rather than booking instructors to come in and deliver training, the University of York chose to put a member of staff through the MHFA Instructor Training programme. Jo stepped up to the challenge and qualified as an MHFA instructor in November 2015. Shortly afterwards, Jo began delivering in-house MHFA Two Day and Half Day courses to her colleagues.
Once Jo was qualified as an MHFA instructor, places on the courses were initially offered through the university’s Mental Health First Contact Network which staff could apply to join. Jo comments, “We had a series of drop in sessions where people could turn up and find out more about what MHFA involves and register their interest to attend a course. There was such a positive response. By the time we released it more widely to give all staff outside the network the opportunity to attend, there was a long waiting list and it has been fully booked ever since.”
"Training an in-house MHFA instructor has given us 100% flexibility on when we deliver the courses, which is brilliant given the busy teaching timetables of academic staff."
Of the training model, Jo says: “The fact that we had this option of training an in-house instructor was another reason why we chose MHFA training. It has given us 100% flexibility on when we deliver the courses, and how many, which is brilliant given the busy teaching timetables of academic staff. That’s also why we chose to offer half day as well as two day courses. Being able to meet people halfway has been very practical.
“We use the half day course to raise awareness around mental health, but once people get a taste of it they often want to come on the two day course to become a Mental Health First Aider. A lot of managers attend the half day course, learn what it’s all about, then they go away and think about how it will apply to their team. We then get some repeat business from that department.”
Staff confidence to help someone experiencing a mental health issue:
17% before the course
92% after the course
Feedback has been positive with 100% of staff who have attended the training saying they would recommend it to a colleague. Qualitative feedback has included comments such as “Everyone should do this training” and “I can’t think of anyone in the university who it wouldn’t be relevant to.” Jo jokes, “MHFA has been so well received - as a health and safety trainer I’m not used to people getting excited about my training!”
Evaluations have yielded similarly positive data. The university ran a survey of employees before MHFA training and up to six months afterwards, asking people to rate themselves in terms of confidence helping someone who was experiencing a mental health issue. Before the course, 17% of people scored themselves 7/10 or more on confidence, which increased to 92% of people feeling confident to help after the course.
And the university culture around mental health has improved. Helen comments, “We’ve observed a cultural shift where we no longer have to explain why as an organisation we need mental health awareness and skills training. People accept that mental health is an important issue now.”
Places on Jo’s MHFA courses are now advertised through the staff wellbeing website, Well@York, which Helen’s team has created as a hub for information, resources and support on the topics of ‘Get fit’, ‘Eat well’ and ‘Feel good’. The website links to quality health resources such as articles and podcasts, external sources of information and support, and gives staff the opportunity to take part in campus activities and awareness events.
With a whole organisation approach to not only mental health but to a person’s whole wellbeing, multiple departments collaborate to make Well@York a comprehensive resource for staff. Helen says, “Our staff deserve to be as healthy as they can be at work and we want our project to reflect that all areas of health impact on each other. Accordingly, rather than setting up our own separate programmes and activities we work together. For example, to mark Stress Awareness Day this year we asked our colleagues in the sports department to organise free yoga and meditation classes for staff. We advocate that healthy eating, social activities and exercise can all have a positive impact on mental health, and vice versa.”
The project is reinforced by strong links with local organisations such as York Mind, who have delivered staff mindfulness sessions in return for fundraising support. As well as linking people to quality information and activities, the Well@York site is also a portal for staff to access support both through online tools such as a ‘Stress Pathway’ tool, and for face-to-face counselling through the Employee Assistance Programme.
“People have been so keen to learn the skills to help, and have really taken their learning to heart when they do. It’s so rewarding and a real credit to our workforce.”
The Health and Wellbeing Project team plans to continue developing the Well@York hub and rolling out MHFA training flexibly to staff as demand requires. Helen notes, “We have an extraordinarily high employee engagement index compared to other universities – 9 out of 10 of our staff say they are proud to work for the University of York. People say that they are proud to work for an employer that cares about mental health and offers this type of training. Ensuring that staff feel supported and cared for is a key part of why we have been able to achieve such high engagement, and we are going to continue this important work.”
Jo emphasises the energy and enthusiasm of the University of York’s staff in wanting to take MHFA training: “People have been so keen to learn the skills to help, and have really taken their learning to heart when they do. It’s so rewarding and a real credit to our workforce.”