Mental Health First Aid: The Critical Skill Set Every Workplace Needs

UPDATED: April 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 23, 2024
woman holding another woman's hands

It’s standard practice to have multiple employees in every organization qualified in first aid so they can attend to physical injuries until professional medical help arrives. However, the same consideration is seldom extended toward mental stress and strain—otherwise known as mental health first aid—and that needs to change.

Gallup found that “19% of U.S. workers rate their mental health as fair or poor” and are four times more likely to miss work due to poor mental health than peers who rate their mental health as good, very good or excellent. The same analysis also found that workers believe their job is more likely to harm their mental health than help it.

While it may seem that your workplace is different, that may not be the case. McKinsey & Company determined that 75% of employers admit that a stigma surrounding mental health issues exists in their workplaces.

What is Mental Health First Aid?

In layman’s terms, mental health first aid is the ability to assist someone struggling with their mental health or in a crisis. The need for this (and the gap in the market for training) resulted in the development of an organizational body, called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). MHFA offers short programs for people, including employees, to learn and implement mental health assistance skills.

Jodi J. Frey, PhD, LCSW-C, CEAP, a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, specializes in mental health in the workplace and serves on the advisory council for MHFA. She assists with research and evaluation for workplace mental health programs.

“Historically… employers [have given] resources to employees and encourage[d] them to do self-care and to change their own behaviors and to reach out for help when they need it,” Frey says. “[But] we are in a[n] environment in the U.S. with a broken mental health system where you can’t get appointments for counselors without waiting several months, [and] many don’t accept insurance, which sets up… inequitable systems of access to care…. Workplace leaders are seeing more and more crises, and employees… want the workplace to be part of the solution for them.”

Mary Jacobson, M.D., chief medical officer at Hello Alpha, regularly encounters mental health problems while treating thousands of patients each year. 

“What strikes me is that there’s a dearth of health education, [so having mental health first aid available and] having… laypeople [who can] help someone in need [is] a great opportunity because we also don’t have enough healthcare providers…. Untreated mental health issues decrease worker productivity [and] increase absences, so it’s really the bottom line for the company with respect to productivity.” 

It is clear that workplaces need to understand the importance of mental health in their employees, not just out of compassion but also as a core element in promoting workplace productivity and efficiency, as well as reducing staff turnover. 

The benefits of mental health awareness and support at work

HR and Inclusion Consultant Charlie Hart embarked on a two-day online course with Mental Health First Aid and agreed that the benefits of mental health awareness in the workplace are plentiful. “Good mental health can… increase retention and help employees thrive in their roles,” Hart says. “Physical and psychological safety and well-being are of paramount importance [since it’s] unlikely an individual can be fully engaged in their role unless that basic need has been met and continues to be met.” 

Hart has also received assistance from a trained MHFA provider, who helped her with de-escalation and grounding techniques when she was struggling with what was later diagnosed as Complex PTSD. “[Donna] insisted on driving me home… and urged me to speak to my doctor about my clearly deteriorating mental health. Donna  effectively helped me through that episode, [which had] a long-term positive effect on my well-being; she showed me the direction to recovery.”

How to improve mental health in the workplace 

Frey says that embodying a workplace culture that prioritizes mental health takes a lot of investment over time. Since overhauling a company’s mental health practices won’t happen overnight, here are three useful places to start.

1. Evaluate discriminatory or unjust practices

Begin with an open and honest evaluation of the company’s existing culture around mental health. 

“[Changing the system] takes a lot of employers looking in the mirror at some practices that may be discriminatory, that could be unjust… [or] radically different from how they have functioned in the past,” Frey says. 

“[One needs to look] at practices… that contribute to toxic work environments and negative mental health outcomes like discrimination, harassment, bullying, [a] lack of autonomy, [a] lack of access to… good pay [and a] lack of access to insurance… when they reach out for support.” This can be overwhelming, but starting at the top is the easiest way to make it happen.

2. Enlist the C-Suite

Frey stresses that the C-Suite also needs to lead from the front. “There’s nothing more impactful that changes a workplace culture than a CEO or CFO that shares that they had [mental health] struggles, that they sought help, that the help supported them and that they are in recovery [and] are thriving—and that they want the same for their employees,” Frey says. “There’s no amount of marketing materials that do a better job than when people share their stories and make it real.” She also suggests establishing “employee resource groups with peer support programs…  [since] there’s power in numbers.”

3. Learn to recognize when someone is in need

Jacobson believes it’s integral for both managers and employees to learn how to recognize someone in need. “[They need to be trained in how to] approach that person and [give] that person a safe space… [without] retaliation or anything affecting their ability to get promoted,” she says, acknowledging the overwhelming impact of mental health stigmas in the workplace.

However, Frey notes that there’s no wrong place to start, and each organization will have different “low-hanging fruit” options to capitalize on, such as an employee assistance program that is already in place or management training that can readily implement resource awareness. 

An example of the resources a company may already have on hand is Workplace Suicide Prevention, which offers a plethora of learning materials. “Recognizing that we’re going to start somewhere and we’re going to build over time and we’re going to reap the benefits over years… makes it a lot less scary to start on the journey,” Frey says.

If the benefits of mental health first aid aren’t immediately apparent, Frey recommends tracking the data through culture surveys, pulse-point check-ins and exit interviews to measure outcomes on “absenteeism, retention, engagement and inclusion.”

“Organizations that have… evolved are very open to change [and] have open-door communication,” she says. “They do see their employees as their most important resource—not a cog in the wheel or a barrier to productivity.”

Photo by Dragana Gordic/

Tayla Blaire is a South African freelance journalist and copy/content writer for business and lifestyle brands. She enjoys helping new writers find their feet in the world of freelancing, thanks to her background in education. Find her at