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By Sofie Farthing

Mental health in the workplace

Last Updated 14 Jul 2020

Everyone is familiar with physical first aid, whether you’re qualified to carry it out or not. But what about mental health first aid? The phrase can raise a few eyebrows but the truth is that our mental health needs looking after just as much as our physical health. 

One in four of us will experience a mental health issue in any given year. When you think of that statistic in relation to your workplace, that’s got to be at least one or two of your team. At ASSISTED., we want to be well equipped to recognise and help if one of us is struggling, so our Content & PR Manager Sofie attended a two-day Mental Health First Aid course.

What is a Mental Health First Aid course?

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course was created in Australia in the year 2000. MHFA England have been delivering the training for over ten years now, increasing mental health knowledge and giving delegates the confidence and skills to recognise the signs of mental ill health. 

Unlike physical first aid, mental health first aid is not a mandatory requirement in the workplace – but this is soon set to change. It’s no secret that society does not put the same focus on mental health as physical health. If you have a bad back, it’s generally not difficult to get yourself booked in with a doctor to find a fix. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, you’re likely to be faced with a long waiting list to see someone that can help unless you’re willing to pay and go privately.

There’s certainly a stigma associated with mental ill health that prevents people from discussing issues with family, friends, doctors or colleagues. People are reluctant to seek help because of their concerns about what others will think of them. That’s why it is so important to normalise mental ill health by opening up the conversation in the workplace. It’s a step in the right direction in reducing the stigma that is causing so many people to feel unsafe speaking out.

Why is Mental Health First Aid important in the workplace?

We spend so much time at work. In an ideal world, the workplace would be an open and honest place for people to talk about how they are feeling with at least one person that they feel comfortable with. And of course – work can often be the reason or a contributing factor of why someone is feeling unwell.

Stress is an important part of the mental health conversation. A lot of mental health issues can start with a build-up of stress. Everyone is likely to feel stressed at some point in their lives, and it’s safe to say that one of the most common sources of stress is work. People can become ill when the stress that they are feeling becomes more than they can cope with. 

Not everyone deals with stress in the same way because everyone’s vulnerability varies – some people thrive under pressure and others will crumble. It’s important to recognise this in the workplace and understand that not everybody will be able to deal with things in the same way that you do.

Everybody has a stress container. More vulnerable people will have a smaller stress container. If the container overflows, problems develop that could lead to an emotional snap. Helpful coping strategies can act as a tap to let the stress back out. The workplace can be the perfect place to try and implement some of these helpful coping strategies to relieve stress. This could be simply making time for positive, valued experiences at work such as social afternoons, team lunches or dedicated time to mentally unloading worries and issues to each other. Taking the focus off work and onto human relationships can not only make us feel comforted and connected, it also creates an open environment for people to be honest about how they are feeling.

The four main take-aways:

A big part of the MHFA course is to provide first aiders with a basic knowledge about mental health issues so that they can recognise when someone is struggling, and to be aware of what to do and what not to do to help. This can translate to the workplace, to friends and family and even to ourselves, as it can be difficult to help others if we’re not managing our own wellbeing too. 

Recognise the signs

Even though you might not know all of your work colleagues enough to read their moods and feelings, we spend a lot of time with the people we work with. This can make it quite clear to recognise when someone is struggling. You may become worried about someone if they are:

  • Lacking in confidence in themselves or suffering from poor self-esteem
  • Often feeling guilty when they are not really at fault
  • Having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Avoiding situations
  • Distressed in social situations
  • Repetitive compulsive behaviour, such as continually seeking reassurance

Of course, just because someone is showing these symptoms it does not mean that they are suffering with ill mental health. It never hurts to be aware though, and to reach out to someone if you are concerned.

Reach out

It’s important to know how to reach out to someone in the correct way, especially in the workplace. The office probably isn’t the best place to ask someone how they are feeling. Perhaps you could invite the person out for a coffee or lunch or a drink after work. Create a safe environment away from others where they can feel relaxed. 

When starting the conversation, you could say something like:

“I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately. Is everything okay?”


“It seems like something might be bothering you. I want to let you know that I’m here if you’d like to talk.”

It’s important to respect the person’s privacy. If they don’t want to talk, then that’s okay. If you’re really concerned you can continue to keep an eye on them and try again another day. You should also keep your conversations confidential, unless you’re worried that they are a risk to themselves or others. 

Listen without judgement

This is by far the most important thing to remember and implement into the way you help others. Not everyone is a good listener – even if you think you are. Really listening to someone is an invaluable skill. Most people who are experiencing distressing emotions and thoughts want to be genuinely listened to with empathy and without judgement before being offered options and resources that may help them.

Naturally as human beings, we try and offer solutions to fix problems. This isn’t always helpful. As soon as you start thinking about what you can say to fix the issue, you’re no longer listening to what that person is saying. 

A lot of what you think could be helpful to say, could actually feel as if you are invalidating their feelings instead of normalising them. Try and avoid saying things like:

“It’ll get better.”

“It could be worse.”

“Why don’t you try thinking about it this way…”

“It’s just in your head.”

“Let it go.”


Here’s a helpful analogy to keep in mind. Imagine that the person you’re trying to help is stuck in a hole. Instead of reaching in and trying to pull them out of the hole, climb into that hole with them. This will be much more of a comfort. Sit in the hole with them for a little while, and then look for ways to climb out together. 

Know your resources

Once you’ve listened to someone, it can be easier for you to offer help, support and information. This includes emotional support, such as recognising and accepting how they feel and, if necessary you can offer them additional information about mental health issues. This could simply be resources that will help them cope, such as relaxation and breathing exercises, or this could be charities and organisations to reach out to. It might be a good idea to check with the person if they want this information before you offer it, especially if they seem overwhelmed.