Why the mind matters: mental health first aid

Words:
Nicola Rich

Stride Treglown puts the mental wellbeing of its staff at the centre of its operations – with positive results for everyone

Misunderstood in workplace
Misunderstood in workplace

A few years ago, the idea of discussing your mental health at work would have been unthinkable. And, despite high profile conversations around the topic from the Royal family, celebrities and well-known sportspeople, the fact remains that many people find it a difficult topic.

Research suggests that around one quarter of people will suffer a mental illness at some stage in their lives and in the region of 18% of adults of working age are suffering from a mental health related problem at any one time. But a survey by the mental health charity Mind showed that one third of people surveyed felt they would be unable to speak to their line manager about a mental health issue.

Public Health England estimates that more than 15 million working days were lost in 2014 to stress, anxiety or depression (an increase of 24% since 2009) and mental ill-health is costing the UK economy in the region of £70 billion. More difficult to estimate is the cost of ‘presenteeism’ – staff who are unwell but still working far less productively.

As the RIBA website acknowledges, working in architecture features characteristics associated with a higher incidence of mental health issues – from a prevalence of long hours, to variable workloads – leading to feelings of job insecurity.

Wellbeing has been central to Stride Treglown’s culture for many years. In 2015, it was the first organisation to achieve the top award of excellence in all eight standards of the Workplace Wellbeing Charter, a national award that recognises business commitment to the health and well-being of its workforce.

Alongside initiatives such as ‘netwalking’ and having allotments and beehives in the garden at our Bristol headquarters, we run workshops on subjects including developing mindfulness, developing resilience, having difficult conversations and emotional intelligence.

With the concept of wellbeing so firmly embedded in the firm’s culture, tackling mental health was a logical next step and we now have 14 mental health first aiders spread across our nine UK offices.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a training course which teaches people how to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue. It does not teach staff to be therapists but to listen, reassure and respond, helping someone through a crisis or potentially preventing a crisis. Participants also learn how to empower people to access the support they might need for recovery or the successful management of symptoms. 

Mental health
Mental health

Those wishing to become mental health first aiders complete a two-day evidence based course to achieve certification.  The costs of this vary depending on the location and instructor:  MHFA England charges £300 per person, but some public health authorities and charities offer subsidised training. 

The training paid dividends for one member of staff recently who got caught up in a raid in a local shop while on her lunch break. After the event, she applied the skills she had learnt to process what she had experienced and help support others involved.  Aside from this incident, we have seen an increase in the number of staff coming forward to disclose mental health problems.

While it’s early days for hard evidence of the benefits of training our mental health first aiders, we are clear that our commitment to the wellbeing of our staff more broadly makes good business sense.

We regularly survey our staff and consistently find engagement rates of 80% and above – the employees believe Stride Treglown genuinely cares about them.  (The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development Outlook Survey for last year reported employee engagement levels at 37% in the private sector.)

Of Stride Treglown’s staff, 98% either agree or strongly agree that their wellbeing matters to the company and it has excellent rates of attrition and absence. On average staff take less than 2.5 days sickness absence per year, compared to the national average of 4.3 days (2016 Labour Force Survey) and staff turnover here was 7.8% (2015 to 2016) compared with the staff turnover data collected from EEF members at 16.1% in 2015 and rising. The practice’s recruitment costs per head have consequently dropped significantly over the last three years. 

A less obvious result of these statistics is the reaction of clients and suppliers, several of whom have contacted me over the last month to discuss how we might be able to help them adopt a similar approach. Developing these sorts of relationships is a huge bonus to the business – and something that we also hope will contribute to a positive working environment for our staff.


Nicola Rich is an associate and HR manager at Stride Treglown. She is also a mental health first aid instructor and is happy to be contacted by organisations who would like to know more about introducing MHFA into their businesses.

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