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Health and wellbeing: Mental first aid in practice

Health and wellbeing: Mental first aid in practice

By Chris Molnar

Health Wellbeing 

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It is common for workplaces to have a first aider for physical injuries but not mental illness, and yet mental health is no less important.

Snapshot
  • Improved mental health in the workplace can reduce absenteeism, improve productivity and lower the incidence of compensation claims.
  • A variety of private training organisations offer training that leads to accreditation.
  • Mental first aiders in the workplace are likely to be an important early intervention to manage risks.

The draft report of the Productivity Commission on Mental Health released on 31 October 2019 reports that at least 3 million working Australians have mental illness or are carers of someone with mental illness. Improved mental health in the workplace can reduce absenteeism, improve productivity and lower the incidence of compensation claims.

It is common for workplaces to have a first aider for physical injuries, much less so for mental illnesses, and yet mental health is no less important. Mental illness can impact working and family lives just as much as any physical injury. However, as the signs are less visible, managing mental illness in the workplace can be overlooked by employers. Training leading to accreditation for mental health first aiders is undertaken by a variety of private training organisations. In order to have a better understanding of the mental health needs of colleagues and to be able provide first aid if needed I spent two days on a course with about 20 professionals, including managers, rehabilitation providers, injury insurers and health professionals.  On successful completion of the course and the assessment, participants are accredited by Mental Health First Aid Australia.

The course was delivered through formal instruction, videos, role playing and group activities. I enjoyed the training, particularly mixing with other professionals to discuss mental health in the workplace. We received a book on mental health first aid and, on successful completion of the assessment, a certificate. The course is for first aiders – those in a position to respond first to mental illness. Depending on the circumstances, the affected person can ultimately be encouraged, supported and guided by the first aider to obtain appropriate professional or other support.

The course addressed two key capabilities for first aiders – first, how to recognise mental illness, either from the symptoms the affected person describes or what the first-aider observes and, second, what the first aider should do in response.

The course covered depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse and trauma. Tools were given to deal with crisis, for example, a person intending to suicide. The role-playing scenarios gave a glimpse into real-life situations and, with that, hopefully the confidence to provide life-saving assistance.

Mental first aid as part of occupational health and safety in the workplace

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) makes clear that a reference to health includes psychological health: section 5. As such, duties under the Act extend beyond physical health. This means, for example, that employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, maintain a safe working environment without risks to psychological health, as well as physical health: subsection 21(1). 

Many employees spend most of their waking hours at work. Mental illness, whatever the cause, may well be present in the workplace and have an impact on the way work is being done, in particular whether it is being undertaken safely. The work environment itself can also be a risk factor for mental illness, including the aggravation of an existing condition.

It is advisable for employers to undertake a risk assessment to identify whether a trained mental first-aid officer in the workplace is required. Part of that assessment is the presence and impact of psychosocial risks in the workplace such as high workloads, tight deadlines, lack of control of work, content of work and working methods. More psychosocial risks in the workplace lead towards a greater need for a trained mental first aider in the workplace in order to manage these risks. 

What does this mean for law practices?

The Act applies to legal practices in the same way it applies to other businesses, meaning law firms need to assess the health and safety risks of their operations to people they owe a legal duty to.

Employees working in legal practices having potentially psychosocial risks common to the profession – long hours, demanding clients, complex and difficult work, vicarious trauma, short deadlines, tight budgets, all of which are risk factors for mental illness. Mental first aiders in the workplace are likely to be an important early intervention to manage these risks.

It can be expected that in the future, a first aider for mental health in the workplace will be standard. The law leads us in that direction, as well as sound human resource practice. 


Chris Molnar is an accredited specialist in workplace relations and a partner at Kennedys.


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