Mental well-being in the work space requires out-of-the-box thinking - Opinion

Integrate mental health into First Aid training. Not as an optional module, but as a fixed component. That is what two 'Ecolo-Groen' members of Parliament are putting on the table in a new bill. Head of psychosocial aspects at Mensura, Koen Van Hulst, welcomes the initiative, but advises that organisations need to be far more ambitious.

For a long time, mental issues were largely swept under the carpet. Mental health was a private matter, and not something for employers to get involved in. Thankfully, that has gradually become a thing of the past. The fact that over a third of all long-term sick people in our country struggle with a psychosocial condition or problem speaks volumes. Mental health issue are ubiquitous and have a major impact on people, work and society.

The increased focus on the issue comes not a day too soon. For instance, there are more and more testimonies from top athletes, artists and entrepreneurs on how they struggle(d) with anxiety disorders, burnout, depression or addiction. This is both brave and important, as it also serves to place the issue more firmly on the map. In that context, the proposal put on the table by Ecolo-Groen makes particular sense. We would immediately attend to an employee who suffers an injury, sprains an ankle or suffers a burn. But what can we do for a colleague who is suffering from mental health struggles?

What can we do for a colleague who is suffering from mental health struggles?" Koen Van Hulst Head of psychosocial aspects


On that front, the Anglo-Saxon world is leading the way. 'Mental Health First Aid' has been well established there for many years. In the process, individuals are trained to recognise signs of the most common psychosocial problems. They are also given techniques to begin the conversation in an appropriate, safe way. Not with the intention of playing psychologist, but rather to offer a listening ear, and if necessary, to make a referral to professional assistance.

Great points for the bill therefore, as it helps to introduce 'first aid for mental health issues' in organisations in a low-threshold way. However, it may not stop there. It is not enough to raise awareness among a few first-aiders around mental health in order to have a broad safety net as an organisation. A structural approach, with written procedures and training for all managers and for employees, is the only way to instil a culture in which issues can be discussed and addressed in a timely manner. After all, a quick response time can help prevent a great deal of suffering.

The recent obligation for organisations of 50 or more employees to appoint a confidential advisor is therefore also a positive step in this direction. Organisations need a finely-branched network of sensors that quickly pick up on the warning signs. A network of first-aiders, confidential counsellors, psychosocial prevention advisers and trained managers form a buffer for colleagues who are struggling. But that requires out-of-the-box thinking: the solution is not simply included in the first-aid kit.


Does your organisation keep an eye on mental health?

Burnout, stress, anxiety disorders,...: can managers in your organisation detect mental health issues in time? Can they start a conversation and make referrals for professional help? Managers can learn to recognise the early signs of mental stress and respond appropriately in order to prevent absence from work during a one day training session.