The economic toll of untreated employee mental health conditions in Australian workplaces is staggering, with costs up to $39 billion per year.
According to the 2020 Productivity Commission Inquiry Report on mental health, it is estimated that absenteeism and presenteeism in the workforce costs up to $17 billion per year.
In response to this multifaceted issue, companies are increasingly turning to proactive strategies such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training.
MHFA serves as a vital tool within a larger comprehensive approach to managing mental health in the workplace, according to Western Australian Association for Mental Health (WAAMH) Chief Executive Officer Taryn Harvey.
She said broader societal understanding and reduced stigma surrounding issues were catalysing a transformation in workplace expectations.
“We have seen these expectations increasing following the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health responses, causing a stronger focus on the social determinants of mental health.”
“Potential employees now prioritise employers with strong mental health support systems," Ms Harvey said.
“In turn, employers are beginning to understand the return on investment of having a mentally healthy workplace – fewer insurance claims, improved productivity, lower rates of absenteeism or presenteeism and better organisational culture.
“Ultimately it has become essential for companies to invest in their employees' mental health to stay competitive.”
Mental health first aid defined
While traditional first aid teaches people how to respond to physical health emergencies until professional medical assistance arrives, MHFA focuses on providing interim support to an individual developing a mental health issue, experiencing a worsening of an existing problem or in a crisis until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis resolves.
The training teaches participants how to recognise early signs of issues – such as stress, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug-related issues – offer initial help and guide a person to appropriate treatments and other supportive help.
Ms Harvey said it helped to create a safe place for sharing stories.
“Many employees feel the communication aspect with their peers in training sessions is as powerful as the content itself,” she said.
“It also supports people to utilise appropriate language and dispels myths through evidence-based practices and research.
“This all helps reduce the fear of employees disclosing their own mental health challenges.”
Ms Harvey said MHFA provided many other benefits, contributing to healthier and safer work environments.
“It fosters awareness and understanding of mental health problems, helps destigmatise mental health in the workplace, encourages self-care and cultivates a more empathetic and supportive approach among colleagues,” she said.
“MHFA training also improves productivity, increases retention of skilled staff and lessens employee attrition.
“A PwC report found for every $1 invested in the mental health of workers, the return on investment is $2.30.”
WAAMH provides various training products delivered by accredited facilitators to cater to different mental health issues that arise in workplaces, such as De-escalation Skills training and Being Trauma Responsive.
It also offers customised training to meet an organisation’s needs and provides discreet support within the products to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment.
“Mental health training can raise issues for people and it’s important to make sure the learning environment is supportive, so everyone can get the most out of the experience,” Ms Harvey said.
Taking a holistic approach is a priority
While MHFA training is a crucial step, Ms Harvey warned that it was not sufficient alone.
She encouraged companies to take a holistic approach to ensure individuals facing mental health challenges were genuinely supported.
“Training can be a great first step for employers in creating a supportive and responsive workplace and fulfilling health and safety obligations,” Ms Harvey said.
“However, it must be accompanied by appropriate policies, procedures, culture and management strategies to effectively identify and respond to mental health issues in the workplace.”
Companies should also consider co-designing mental health and self-care policies with their staff, integrating them into broader health and safety guidelines.
“These should actively identify and manage any workplace risk factors relating to mental health,” Ms Harvey said.
“This comprehensive approach can help you establish a shared vision and goals, as well as metrics for measuring worker wellbeing.
“From there, companies can develop a program of training and other instruments aimed at addressing and improving employee mental health and wellbeing.”