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Is mental health first aid on your radar? If not, it should be.

Does your workplace have a Mental Health First Aid officer? As a leader or HR professional, are you actively advocating for the benefits of a holistic approach to ensuring the wellbeing of your team?

Rachael Nelson (pictured left), Director at Forsite Recruitment and Forsite Partners, has completed the accredited Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course and is on a mission to educate others about the importance of being aware of mental health inside and outside of the workplace to help staff who are struggling with mental illness.

And while Rachael insists there is a moral imperative for employers to do what they can to help their employees enjoy good mental health, she adds the business case is also very compelling with employee wellness and mental health programs often producing strong returns on this investment. According to HeadsUp, untreated mental health conditions among staff are costing Australian workplaces around US$7.3 billion (A$10.9) billion annually - US$3.37 billion of that is absenteeism; US$4.38 billion in presentism (staff members who are unproductive because of untreated mental illness) and US$104.82 million in compensation claims.

Australian non-profit organisation, the Black Dog Institute advises that one in five Australians aged between 16-85 will experience a mental illness in any one year and the World Health Organisation predicts depression will be the number one health concern in the world by 2030.

Rachael said that given the prevalence and cost to business of untreated mental illness among the workforce, there is a strong business case for a MHFA officer to be required in every business, trained in helping those who are struggling with mental health issues.

Nataly Bovopoulos, the CEO of MHFA said the program was developed in 2000 by Australian academic Anthony Jorm and his wife, nurse Betty Kitchener who battled depression and faced workplace discrimination as a result.

Since then, more than 2.6 million people in 25 countries worldwide have trained through MHFA. The standard Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course works on assisting Australians across all demographics including young people, older people and indigenous Australians.

“In the workplace there are more barriers for people reaching out for help with a belief it may affect career progression,” Nataly said. “But the workplace is a good environment for people to ask and seek help because we often spend more time with colleagues than family.”

She explained the course helped train participants in identifying emerging metal health issues among staff and steps to help support them through that process.

“You may notice that someone is not quite themselves at work and seem to be struggling,” she said. “Not everyone is comfortable doing that because they feel it is not their place to interfere or they worry they won’t know how to respond. But reaching out can make a huge difference to the individual who is suffering.

“We are working to dispel some of the myths about mental illness, the stigma associated with it and what happens when someone asks for help.”

Nataly explained the MHFA course helps participants identify untreated mental health issues from those who find themselves in crisis situations, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, acute intoxication and psychosis and then develop action plans.

Rachael said the benefit of understanding and addressing mental health problems quickly, was employers were able to take steps to assist the employee through the process in ways that were helpful to them while mitigating against any impacts on the business.

She cited data from a PriceWaterhouseCoopers 2014 study which stated that organisations which have good workplace mental health as a priority “can expect a positive return on investment (ROI) of 2.3”.

The study said these returns take the form of:

  • Improved productivity via reduced absenteeism

  • Increased presenteeism

  • Reduced compensation claims

The report said that a positive ROI was more likely to be realised when there is “leadership and management and support for improving the culture and mental health of the workplace.” Nataly added that employers receiving mental health awareness training also helped employers understand their legal obligations noting that if staff ask for reasonable adjustments to their working conditions, they are not required to disclose to their employer that it is because they are dealing with a mental health condition.

“We are finding that employers are becoming increasingly aware of the need for Mental Health First Aid officers and we believe there is no reason why it won’t be mandated in the same way physical first aid officers are,” she said.

“Research shows that after MHFA training in the workplace people walk away feeling more confident about their skills to offer help and this has also led to an increase in people reaching out for that help within their workplaces.

“People are connected to each other in the workplace which is the biggest contributor to satisfaction so why wouldn’t you want to make sure that your people are as healthy and happy as possible?” Rachael, a HR professional of 20 years, explained she undertook the MHFA course to expand her own knowledge about mental health illness and how to support staff, clients and candidates who are facing these issues.

“Medium to large workplaces are required to have trained WHS officers to ensure the wellbeing and welfare of their staff on a physical level, but we understand that wellbeing is holistic and should include the mental and psychological wellbeing of our staff,” she said. “With the knowledge workplace accidents are costly to a business and can cause low morale, we should work to prevent them where possible.

“Employers of choice are increasingly moving towards focusing on the psychological wellbeing of their employees. As recruiters we have a role to play in educating our clients that they will not secure the best talent if they are considered to not care for their employees as much as their competitors.

“Simply put, a failure to appreciate mental health in the workplace will have a negative impact on the bottom line.

“Having completed the Mental Health First Aid course, I feel more certain that Forsite Recruitment can assist employers attract and retain the best talent through the development and implementation of strategic recruitment practices which incorporates mental health as a key focus.”

The requirements for workplace health and safety officers vary from each state and territory in most countries. To find out what your obligations are in Australia visit the Safe Work Australia website.

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