Almost half of all New Zealanders will experience mental distress or illness in their lifetime. While public conversations around mental health have grown louder in recent times, it is often a misunderstood and stigmatised subject – leaving many individuals to suffer in silence.
Aurecon launched a mental health first aid plan in late 2020 to encourage those affected to speak up and foster workplace and community wellbeing.
We spoke to Tom Darwell, Health & Safety Advisor at Aurecon, about what triggered the need for the plan and how it’s progressing.
“At Aurecon, we’re striving to create a workplace where our people are supported to thrive, and their lives are enriched because they work here.
“The decision to develop Aurecon’s mental health first aid plan was driven by the increasing prevalence of mental distress and illness within our communities and hence within workplaces.”
“Several other factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have exacerbated the situation in recent times, affecting not only our people, but also their whānau, friends and partners.
“We wanted to ensure our people had a support network within the organisation to assist with confidential conversations, and guide those in need towards appropriate resources.”
Training the trainers
Following the in-house development of the mental health first aid plan, the first step was to engage health promotion charity Mental Health First Aid Australia to provide training for Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs) at Aurecon.
MHFAs learn how to identify, listen and respond to someone with a mental health problem. They are also equipped to help people access the ongoing support they might need to manage their symptoms – be it through their GP, online resources, support groups and more.
Several Aurecon staff members received accredited trainer status, which then allowed them to facilitate training sessions for MHFAs within the business – ensuring the programme was tailored to Aurecon’s specific needs and culture.
The training to become an accredited MHFA is a 12-hour course, run over two days. Trainees gain a two-year certificate.
“We’re currently looking into a New Zealand provider, Te Pou, as their course has been adopted to be more culturally specific and relevant to New Zealanders.”
Securing support and removing barriers
Once the Mental Health First Aiders are trained, the next step is to make them visible and approachable to staff in need. MHFAs’ details are displayed on Aurecon’s intranet along with an expression of interest form for staff members interested in becoming one. Links to these are regularly included in internal communications.
Aurecon also holds monthly catch-ups run by regional MHFA cohorts to foster engagement and generate interest among potential trainees.
“These groups also play a crucial role in organising wellbeing-based events and initiatives. A recent example is our participation in Mental Health Awareness Week last September, where our central theme revolved around the concept of reconnecting.
“Over the course of the week, we highlighted local MHFAs and asked our people how they reconnect outside of work, with the business. We held a morning tea in each of our offices as well as a mental health first aid themed ‘pub quiz’ at the end of the week to tie together all the elements.”
Keeping conversations going
Tom’s background in the hospitality industry – traditionally high pressure and heavily impacted by COVID-19 – has made him passionate about prioritising people’s wellbeing in the workplace. He believes that conversation is key to mental health first aid.
“In order to break down the stigma, we need to start encouraging and normalising conversations around mental health in the workplace, at home and with friends and family.
“When conversations like these aren’t socialised, it can lead to an individual repressing their thoughts internally, potentially creating a more severe situation further down the track.
“It’s about opening up an avenue for people – even if these conversations don’t delve into the depth of an individual’s struggle, they might open up opportunities for the person to be put on the right track to access a MHFA, EAP, counsellor or specialist.”