With mental health initiatives suddenly on the radar of corporate Australia, Nataly Bovopoulos asks if the next step is mental health first aid and Mental Health First Aid Officers.
While organisations across Australia increasingly recognise the impact mental health problems have on the workplace and are doing their bit by raising awareness and providing employer assistance programs , more needs to be done to help staff play an active role in supporting their co-workers.
In essence, employees must to be skilled up to provide that vital ‘first line of response’ in a crisis and the opportunity to nip a mental health problem in the bud by encouraging colleagues to seek help early.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Australia is meeting that need by taking the concept of ‘Mental Health First Aid Officers’ to the workplace – that is equipping a diverse network of appropriate staff with the necessary skills to detect the early signs and symptoms of a mental health problem and to rapidly respond to a crisis.
These skills are acquired during a 12-hour training course during which participants learn to recognise changes in emotion, thinking and behaviour and acquire the confidence to reach out to colleagues they are concerned about and, where appropriate, encourage them to seek professional help.
It is well known that a delay in seeking help for mental health problems can increase the risk of a prolonged absence from work. Also, the longer a person is away from work, the less likely they are to return. Both scenarios are enormously costly to business.
According to research, more than six million Australians take sick leave every year due to mental illness, with an estimated $10.9bn being lost annually through absenteeism, reduced productivity and compensation claims as a result of untreated mental health conditions.
However, for every dollar spent investing in effective actions such as MHFA training, workplaces can generate a ROI of 2.3 in terms of reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and compensation claims. 
To date the training and appointment of MHFA officers has been confined to a very narrow band of industry - primarily healthcare, the public sector and the tertiary education sector.
However, major workplaces such as Lendlease and law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright, are now actively championing workplace MHFA Officers.
Given the current heightened level of interest, it is likely the concept will catch on fast.
What next for HR practitioners?
For HR practitioners looking to support early intervention in the workplace with the appointment and training of MHFA Officers, here are the next steps:
- Offer MHFA training to all workers. This involves two days of face-to-face training (or six hours of eLearning plus a half day follow-up session face-to-face) with an accredited MHFA instructor.
- Next, encourage workers who have completed training to become an accredited MHFAider. Following a standardised assessment, this makes them eligible to be appointed as an MHFA officer.
- Develop and implement a MHFA policy for your workplace with key stakeholders including trained MHFAiders, HR, and WHS officers. MHFA Australia will provide some guidance on developing these policies during training.
- Appoint a number of suitable and willing accredited MHFAiders as MHFA Officers.
- Establish, maintain, promote and support a broad, diverse and accessible network of MHFA Officers across the workplace.
By 2020, our goal is for 5% of the Australian adult population to complete MHFA training and for MHFA Officers to be as commonplace in the workplace as physical first aiders.
About the author
Nataly Bovopoulos is Deputy CEO and Company Secretary for Mental Health First Aid Australia. Founded by mental health consumer Betty Kitchener AM, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Australia provides evidence-based mental health first aid training for community and workplaces including a newly launched blended course for white-collar workplaces.
Nataly has over 10 years’ experience working in the non-profit mental health sector. She joined MHFA Australia in 2011, first as Program Manager, and since 2012 as Deputy CEO. With tertiary degrees in psychology and public health, Nataly is completing a PhD on mental health first aid in the workplace and is an accredited Standard MHFA Instructor.
PwC (2014). Creating a mentally healthy workplace – Return on investment analysis. www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/default-document-library/research-by-pricewaterhousecoopers.pdf?sfvrsn=0