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How Startup Owners Can Provide Mental Health First Aid

Mental health is important in the workplace. Not only is it the right thing to do, but mental health also directly affects productivity, staff retention, absenteeism, and more. According to the World Health Organization, mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion in treatment as well as lost productivity. However, it’s especially important in startups. Mental health first aid in particular is a key part of any startup’s mental health plan.


Hustle culture is strong at many startups, with many expecting a lot from their employees. Many also run on a knife’s edge and don’t have the same resources as an established business. The result? Workers at startups may have a higher risk of work-related mental health issues.

Just like medical emergencies, severe mental health crises necessitate an immediate mental health response to prevent issues from worsening and to look after your team’s well-being.

Mental health first aid, explained

There’s a difference between maintaining good mental health and responding to a mental health crisis. The first is preventative, while the second is responsive. The former can prevent the latter, but it’s important that your startup has some sort of plan in place should the worst happen.

And that’s what mental health first aid (MHFA for short) is all about.

MHFA focuses on providing immediate response to a mental health crisis or emergency. It focuses on tackling serious mental health issues that affect your employees such as:

  • Depressive episodes
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • PTSD

Each of these is an extreme situation that can stop an employee from functioning. Each can require immediate and urgent support to reduce the risk of harm coming to the employee or to others.

Mental health first aid plays a crucial role by providing essential support until someone can be referred to a psychologist. It focuses on stabilizing the situation and helping people experiencing mental health problems cope until a professional can intervene.

What it isn’t about is “fixing” the issue. Each of these is an issue that only a psychologist is trained to tackle, and even then, a lot of these mental health issues can only really be managed and not cured.

Providing mental health first aid: the beginner’s guide for startups

Learn how to identify the signs of mental health issues

For many people, mental health is a delicate topic that often involves sensitive issues either at work or at home. Is it any wonder that many people – men in particular – are hesitant to talk about it, especially with their employers?

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that recognizing the signs of mental health issues or distress at your startup is the first step in providing mental health first aid.

When assessing for risk, it’s important to recognize the signs of poor mental health:

  • Unexpected changes to behavior and routine
  • Significant drops in productivity, punctuality, or timeliness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings or emotional outbursts
  • Persistent restlessness and agitation
  • Neglecting appearance, not practicing self-care
  • Sudden weight or appetite changes
  • Talking about death, dying, or suicide
  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness

While individually these aren’t necessarily symptoms of poor mental health, several suddenly appearing at the same time can indicate that something’s up.

It’s also important to investigate whether any potential instigating events have occurred. In many cases, a mental health issue can be the result of specific events. As part of your risk assessment, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on potential triggers in your employee’s life such as a relationship breakdown, the loss of a loved one, or a traumatic event.

An introduction to the ALGEE model

Approaching mental health first aid can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have any prior experience or mental health first aid training. Luckily, the ALGEE action plan offers a guideline that you can use to approach mental health crises and issues.

ALGEE was devised by Mental Health First Aid International, the not-for-profit which develops guidelines for mental health first aid training worldwide. The ALGEE action plan gives you the tools you need to spot the signs and provide support during mental health crises.

  • Assess for risk and approach – be familiar with the symptoms of poor mental health and approach team members politely and in private if you’re worried
  • Listen and communicate – posture, body language, word choice, tone… all of these are important when talking about mental health
  • Give reassurance and information – affirmation and validation show that you’re taking their mental health issues seriously, and show respect
  • Encourage professional support – there are many professionals who can offer help during a mental health crisis, but your team members may need some encouragement to use them
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies – on top of professional support, you should also talk about what plans and strategies can be implemented at work or at home

Just remember that it’s a general guide, not a set of instructions. While ALGEE is helpful, when it comes to mental health, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each person is unique, so it’s best to tailor your approach to the individual. If your employee responds best to humor, it might decide to work some of it into your approach when providing mental health first aid.

Sensitivity above all else

It may seem simple, but it’s something that’s surprisingly hard!

There is a range of different things that go into listening non-judgementally:

  • Your posture and body language
  • Language, word choices, and voice tone
  • Eye contact
  • Affirmation and validation

Just as important as what to do when listening is what not to do. Your employees have boundaries, and there may be certain things they’re not comfortable talking about. It’s important that you respect these boundaries and don’t overstep. If they don’t want to talk with you about it at all, it’s important to respect that as well, even if it makes you uncomfortable – in these cases, you should try to encourage them to talk about it to someone they trust.

Whatever you do, avoid anything that makes it sound like you’re judging them or trivializing their problems. The “tough love” approach can often make things worse by driving your team away from getting help.

Prepare a mental health first aid kit

While the ALGEE model can be helpful, it’s good to remember that it isn’t the only option you have. There are other things you can do to address mental health crises at your startup – one of which is to put together a mental health first aid kit.

As the name suggests, this is a toolbox that contains various things to help provide mental health first aid. It can be a good idea to include it in resources to help tackle mental health crises such as contact details for support services and hotlines. Another good idea is to include resources to help you as you provide support, such as scripts to follow and refreshers on ALGEE.

And finally, it can be a good idea to tailor the content to the people who make up your startup.

For example, one of the most common mental health issues is depression. If a member of your team discloses that they have been diagnosed with depression and are on medication, it can be worth asking about including some spare tablets or pills in your mental health first aid kit to help with depressive episodes.

Remember, a mental health first aid plan is a good start – but that isn’t all you can do

Mental health is crucial for startups, no matter what industry you’re trying to disrupt. Mental health first aid plan is a key part of your workplace mental health plan.

However, it isn’t the only thing you need to be thinking about.

Even the best mental health first aid plan won’t do much to support people at your startup if your startup culture doesn’t take mental health seriously in the first place. Team members need to feel like they’ll be listened to if they decide to open up, and that their needs will be taken seriously.

Luckily, that’s one of your biggest advantages as a startup. You’re small and agile, and you haven’t had time to become set in your ways. While complete cultural change still takes effort, it’s a lot easier for startups like yourself.

Author : Jeff Liang

Jeff is an SEO specialist at MOO Marketing and Design, a marketing agency in Melbourne, Australia. When he's not desperately trying to keep up with the latest unexpected Google algorithm change, he likes to write up long pieces on topics that catch his eye.

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