What works in the workplace? Offering mental health first aid to help a co-worker

Article by Nataly Bovopoulos, Deputy CEO, Mental Health First Aid Australia and PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne

Researchers seeking experts to help develop workplace mental health first aid guidelines 

Most people now know that mental health problems are common and disabling. It is no different in the workplace, where the annual costs to the economy are often cited in be in the billions. Employees struggling with mental health problems may find it difficult to maintain their usual levels of productivity, leading to presenteeism and absenteeism. Unfortunately, there may not be many people in a workplace who would know how to offer help to a co-worker who is developing depression, troublesome anxiety or a substance use disorder. In other cases, a co-worker may be unsure if it is appropriate to offer help and perhaps only intervene once someone reaches a crisis, such as suicidal behaviour. Fortunately there are more programs becoming available to train employees in how to offer help a co-worker. However, the research to inform the content of such courses is still scarce.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Australia, in partnership with researchers from University of Melbourne, Deakin University and University of Tasmania are currently developing guidelines for workplaces on how to tailor their mental health first aid strategies when assisting co-workers and employees. When finalised, these guidelines will be freely available to download for any workplace to review and guide their own approach. The guidelines will also be used to help inform future tailored workplace Mental Health First Aid training. 

The researchers of this study are currently looking for individuals to complete two online surveys to help with this needed research. If you have workplace mental health expertise developed by your experience as a mental health consumer, manager or workplace mental health professional, contact Nataly Bovopoulos using the details at the end of the article to participate. 

Why is it important to pick up the early signs of mental health problems at work?

Unfortunately, few employees appear to seek help for their mental health problems. An Australian study of over 12,000 employees found that only 22% of full-time workers with signs of a common mental illness received treatment for their mental health problems. As a result significant delays in treatment seeking are common. The longer a person delays treatment the more likely they are to take a long sick leave absence in order to receive treatment, resulting in tangible impacts not only for the worker, but for co-workers and the workplace as a whole.  

There are a number of reasons why so few Australian workers seek treatment. Poor mental health literacy, ’the knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management or prevention’, can be a roadblock for workplaces in picking up the warning signs before a crisis emerges. For the affected worker, stigma and fear of workplace discrimination, such as possible job loss, can discourage them from speaking up early.   

One way to reduce the impact of mental health problems in workplaces is by enabling effective early intervention. Providing early support to employees showing signs of a mental illness can prevent the illness from worsening, reducing the impact to the worker and the workplace. 

Given most mental health problems develop slowly, and that we spend so much of our time at work, it seems likely that a co-worker with appropriate knowledge and skills would be able to detect the early signs and symptoms of a developing mental health problem. They would also be in a good position to offer help and support a co-worker whilst they seek professional assistance.

Though it would be ideal if every employee in an organisation had appropriate knowledge and skills, training key staff can be a cost-effective strategy for workplaces. When compared to physical safety, it makes good sense to have dedicated individuals positioned across a workplace who are trained in how support co-workers experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. They might even be promoted in the workplaces alongside regular first aid officers and called ‘peer support workers’ or ‘mental health first aid officers.’ 

Mental Health First Aid and the workplace

Not dissimilar to regular first aid, mental health first aid is the initial help offered to someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis, until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis resolves. Mental health first aid is taught over 12 hours and course participants learn how to notice the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, risk factors, evidence-based treatments and how to offer support using the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan ‘ALGEE’. For more than 10 years, MHFA Australia, now a national non-profit charitable organisation, has facilitated the training of more than 350,000 Australian adults and over a million people worldwide in how to offer support to others using these mental health first aid strategies. 

A comprehensive body of research has demonstrated that mental health first aid training leads to improved knowledge of mental health problems, confidence and willingness to offer help and an increase in actual helping behaviours when measured 6 months after training. Until recently just like regular first aid training, the Standard 12-hour MHFA Course has been delivered as a general course for the public with little modification. Where training is delivered in workplaces, the focus has tended to be on assisting workers to help their clients within the human services and tertiary education sector, rather than co-workers. 

However, demand has steadily increased over the years from a variety of professional groups, and work has begun to modify the 12-hour Standard Mental Health First Aid course for particular industries and professions. More than 1,000 MHFA Instructors are accredited to deliver MHFA courses across Australia. These instructors were consulted on what aspects of the course content, format and mode could be tailored to suit delivery to workplaces whose focus may be on improving mutual support amongst co-workers. 

The length of training was identified as one key area that can be a barrier for workplaces in releasing their staff to attend MHFA training. The Standard MHFA Course can take the form of 12-hours or 4 sessions of 3-hours of face-to-face teaching. A 6-hour self-paced eLearning component and a blended course (eLearning plus a 3.5-hour face-to-face component) are now available to provide more flexibility for workplaces.  

Whilst the core content of the 12-hour Standard MHFA Course is applicable to an adult helping another adult in a variety of situations, specific content related to a particular industry’s culture, policies, professional responsibilities and available resources are modified for each tailored course including tailored films demonstrating the MHFA Action Plan suitable for that industry or profession.

Another area of ongoing work is targeting industry groups where MHFA training uptake to date has been slow. Research conducted in 2014 found that largest training uptake was amongst education and training and the human services industries of health care and social assistance & public administration and safety. Little training occurred in many industries where the prevalence of mental illness is high, such as finance and insurance, media and telecommunications, the legal profession, hospitality, and essential services industries. MHFA Australia is currently in the process of working with a number of key industry stakeholders to develop tailored training for pharmacists and lawyers, amongst others. 

Workplace mental health first aid officers

An idea gaining more recent attention is ‘mental health first aid officers’ in workplaces. In 2012, the UK government publicly called for a ‘mental health first aider in every workplace’, which was then echoed back home by WA Mental Health Commissioner Tim Marney on 2014’s World Mental Health Day. 

MHFA Australia is aware of a number of early adopters now championing this concept including Monash University, the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright Australia and Lend Lease, though we are keen to hear from more workplaces implementing this as part of their workplace mental health strategies. To further support future workplaces, tips on how to select and support workplace mental health first aid officers have been included in the recently launched Blended MHFA Course for the White-Collar Workplace. 

Contact details and more information

To participate in research to develop workplace mental health first aid guidelines, please contact Nataly Bovopoulos at natalyb@student.unimelb.edu.au

More information about MHFA courses can be found here.

More information about MHFA guidelines can be found here 


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