More than just a bandage

Mental Health First Aid training boosts employee knowledge and confidence

Mental wellness is one of the largest initiatives being undertaken by organizations today. By increasing awareness, organizations can reduce stigma and foster a culture of resiliency.

A majority of employers rank mental health conditions among the top three causes of short-term disability, and about one-third of all short- and long-term disability claims relating to mental health problems and illnesses, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).

Working under these conditions are risk factors that can lead to employee burnout. Mental health is an “invisible disability” and it has three main phases: mental wellness, mental stress and mental illness.

Unlike a physical fracture, in which a bone breaks, mends and is healed, mental health is a constant fluctuation of a person’s state of mind. Every individual floats between mental wellness and mental stress, usually on a daily basis.

Many employees report excessive stress in their jobs, and while many organizations don’t have a mental health policy, workplace legislation in many provinces is beginning to change to further support mental injuries in the workplace.

Many employers are left wondering, “What do we do?”

When it comes to mental health, employers should focus on:

• building awareness of mental health in the workplace

• reducing stigma

• identifying indicators and workplace factors for psychological health and safety

• expanding support and recovery.

The key is prevention, open communication and a top-down support mechanism for the recognizance and support of mental health in the workplace.

While many employers understand the benefits of addressing, advocating for and improving mental health in the workplace, there is an identifiable gap within this process — a gap in practical, applicable and real strategies and tools managers, leaders and organizations can use. 

That’s why Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) makes sense. The program was first developed in Australia in 2001 and since then, it has been facilitated in 23 additional countries. MHFA came under the leadership of the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2010 and is now offered in every province and territory. As of 2015, more than one million people have been trained in Mental Health First Aid worldwide, according to the MHCC.

It adds up to a large win for organizations in providing people with tangible tools and strategies. MHFA gives front-line managers (or any certified individual) the ability to provide assistance to a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Just as physical first aid is administered to an injured person before medical treatment can be obtained, MHFA is provided until appropriate support is found or the crisis is resolved.

Once trained in MHFA, colleagues and managers are best placed to be the first to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues among their co-workers, and mental health stressors can be recognized first at the workplace, instead of at home.

The MHFA evidenced-based program not only boosts awareness but also increases employees’ confidence in their ability to identify crises and have difficult conversations. By highlighting the essential components — such as effective listening, empathy and how to appropriately support an individual in distress or crisis — participants are better equipped to provide early intervention.

On day one of the training, many participants talk about the significant amount of pressure they put on themselves (based on their role) to:

• have all the right answers

• know how to respond

• know how to problem-solve and fix

• know how to provide support

• provide advice

• handle each distressing situation confidently.

This leads to feelings of uneasiness, trepidation and fear, resulting in higher stress and anxiety rates. But by the end of the two-day program, participants say they feel much less pressure to have all the answers and they feel better prepared to assist a distressed employee.

MHFA highlights ways to support employees using solution-centred conversation tactics and strategies versus problem-centred conversations. These tools and strategies are imperative as the chances of having a distressed employee at work are probable, and early intervention is key to successful outcomes.

MHFA is an international program that’s proven to be effective, according to the MHCC, and peer-reviewed studies show the benefits for individuals trained in the program:

• They increase their knowledge of signs, symptoms and risk factors of mental health problems.

• They decrease the social distance between themselves and someone with a mental health problem.

• They increase their confidence to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

• They can identify professional and self-help resources for individuals with a mental health problem.

• They show increased mental wellness themselves.

MHFA is quickly empowering organizations to uncover problematic factors and discover meaningful solutions as a collaborative team, which is key to sustainable change. Working together with leadership, middle management and front-line employees, and using psychological health and safety practices, will set organizations apart and ensure lasting organizational change.

Psychological health and safety and mental wellness is a shared responsibility. The workplace may not always be part of the issue, but it can always be part of the solution.

Based in Regina, Adelle Stewart is director of operations and Ashley Breland is program co-ordinator at Bridges Health, specialists in workplace wellness. For more information, call (877) 202-3472, email or visit

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