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How to Give First Aid for Mental Health
There’s a new perspective on mental health at work, and it’s a real eye-opener

We talk a good deal about mental health in the workplace and how we should be reaching out and helping employees going through a rough time. Sure, but how do you start that conversation? Really now, what can you possibly say?

Well, it turns out there’s some pretty good answers to those questions, and I got them from a lady with a really great job title.

I met Christina Fuda at a local event a few weeks ago, and we immediately started talking. She is a Mental Health First Aid Coordinator.

It’s a great concept – first aid for mental health – and it instantly puts our role in employee mental health into a new perspective.

And it immediately gets us over that huge barrier we all face when we see an employee struggling with issues. We’re not physicians or social workers, we say to ourselves. It’s personal and private, we say. How can we possibly intervene?

Well, as Christina explained to me, think “first aid.” If an employee is physically injured at work, well, we’re still not doctors, but we don’t hesitate to give first aid and to call for professional help.

That, says Christina, should be the workplace model for mental health, too. When we see signs of an employee struggling, we should give first aid.

Of course, it helps enormously if you have an EAP (employee assistance program), and you may want to talk to your benefits coordinator if you don’t. Even so, some employees may never have thought about using it. They may think of it as a last resort.

But it doesn’t have to that way at all. When you see problems, says Christina, "You have to have that conversation."

What you say, and how you say it, makes all the difference in making sure the employee accepts your help and makes the decision to move forward. Here are some her tips on how to do that.

  • Keep it professional. Friendly, sure, and as little formality as possible, but this is not a personal conversation.
  • Have the conversation in private, of course, but keep it as low-key as possible: much better to start with, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?” then to schedule a meeting in the HR office ahead of time (with all the stress that can entail).
  • Start by explaining that the employee is valued. "You’re part of the team here, you do great work, we rely on you and we want to make sure you can keep doing a good job. I’m talking to you because we care about you."
  • Talk about some of the observable changes you have noticed. Calling in sick more often. Change in attitude or demeanour. Work performance.
  • Give reassurance. Explain that this is not a disciplinary meeting, that his or her job is safe, and that you are just reaching out to help.
  • Talk about the support that is available. The first choice is always the EAP. But there are also community resources a quick web search away (if the employee wants to keep it private). Otherwise, perhaps HR has confidential contacts. And there’s always the person’s family physician, trained and ready to help or refer.
  • Put that support in context. “When you call the EAP, the first thing you get is someone to talk to – someone who understands where you’re coming from, no matter what you want to talk about.” Or, “This is what family physicians are trained to help with."
  • End with confirmation. “We’re here to help, and we’ll be with you as long as it takes.”

Just as important as taking the right approach, and saying all the right things, is avoiding some of the mistakes that one could easily make. Remember, this is a professional conversation, and we never want to cross the line. And it’s first aid – not treatment.

  • Do not give a diagnosis, or use any words that even remotely sound like one. Don’t say, “You seem depressed,” or “I notice you have mood swings.” Stay away from “pop psychology” at all costs.
  • Do not offer advice. It’s always tempting to say, “What I would do is…” or “Maybe you should try…” But, no. Don’t offer advice, even if you’re asked for it. Your “advice” is to call the EAP and you should stick to that.
  • Don’t let character or motive into the conversation. Things like, “You can be impatient with people when you’re stressed out,” or “I think you did this because…” can throw the whole process right off the rails.
  • Do not be a shoulder to cry on. Make it clear that you’re not there to commiserate or to talk through problems, or anything like that. Leave that conversation to the pros at the EAP.
  • Don’t let it get personal. Even if you’ve long had a friendly relationship with the employee, this is still a professional conversation.

I really like the use of the term “First Aid” in this. It just seems to make so much sense, and it puts things in perspective. If an employee is injured on the job, of course you help. Of course you go and make that employee as comfortable as possible. Of course you offer reassurance and tell him or her that you’re there to help. Of course you call for help, and of course you stay right there until help arrives.

If we think about mental health in the workplace the same way, I think we’ll all be able to do a much better job.

If there is a topic that you would like me to write about, please email me at bill@penmore.com.

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