Manager Training Positive Step Toward Better Employee Mental Health

Everyone knows that a good diet and regular exercise are key to better physical health — but knowing what you should do and actually doing it don’t always coincide. It’s a similar story with mental health promotion.

Although organizations have long heard about the benefits of training front-line managers on mental health in the workplace, many employers have yet to implement such a strategy. That’s a real missed opportunity, because there is strong evidence that training managers to identify potential mental health issues at an early stage – and to direct individuals to the support they may need – results in better psychological health in the workplace.

Any employer that remains unconvinced of the need to address mental health issues may want to take a closer look at its disability claims. With one in five Canadians experiencing a mental health issue in his lifetime, mental and behavioural health problems are considered a leading cause of both short- and long-term disability in Canada.

Lost labour force participation related to the six most common mental health conditions costs employers $20.7 billion annually – and that loss is expected to rise to $29.1 billion by 2030, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada.

While diagnosing and treating the complexities of mental health issues is best left to professionals, educating managers about mental health can go a long way toward reducing the economic burden of lost productivity.

Results from one evidence-based and systematic evaluation program called Mental Health Awareness Training (MHAT), for example, linked manager training to a 25 per cent decline in mental health disability costs and a shorter duration of long-term disability claims, according to Jennifer Dimoff of Dimoff & Kelloway Consulting.

Yet despite the high incidence and massive costs of mental problems – and the availability of numerous manager training programs – 45 per cent of leaders in Canadian organizations still have no training on how to manage employee mental health, according to a 2011 Conference Board of Canada report.

With so much at stake, what is holding them back?

For one thing, there are always many other pressing demands that prevent us from taking action. And employers that are aware of mental health training programs for managers may hesitate when they consider all the planning, resources and commitment required to implement and oversee these programs. Some may be discouraged because they don’t know where to start or are concerned about the time and cost involved.

It’s important to understand, however, that although it may seem easier and less costly in the short term to take no action, organizations ignore mental health training at their peril in the longer term – the situation will not change on its own.

First Steps

An important first step is to recognize the positive impact managers can have in promoting employee health, before a crisis develops. Front-line managers and supervisors already interact with employees every day. So whether it’s a quick chat in the hallway or a regularly scheduled performance review, managers are in a perfect position to recognize when someone may be unwell – and it is their responsibility to check in with employees.

Of course, feeling comfortable enough to initiate a conversation about a potential mental health issue isn’t natural for everyone. Some managers may worry about starting an awkward conversation or may not know what to say or how to help. They may be concerned about taking on the responsibility of solving an employee’s problem or about listening to personal details they’d rather not hear.

But training can allay these fears by helping managers to understand their role is to begin the conversation, find their own style in doing so and then steer individuals to appropriate resources as necessary.

One thing mental health training is not about is learning how to tackle the underlying problem. Rather, managers are trained to recognize signs, how to begin a conversation, what to say and what not to say, how to be respectful, how to maintain boundaries and the types of resources available.

Instead of being at a loss for words, the manager’s responsibilities are laid out simply and are easily scripted. Training also gives managers insight into the mental health resources that are available to them.

Other players also need to be onboard to ensure a positive outcome. At some organizations, a senior-level champion – often one who has been affected by mental health problems either personally or through family or friends – can help drive a training initiative and boost its rate of success.

Launching a manager training program will work even better if it links together all the stakeholders – the insurer, employee assistance program, managers and other business units such as wellness committees and occupational health and safety departments – who care about promoting employees’ health.

It is a great time to go beyond talking about mental health in the workplace – it’s time to take action to reap the long-term benefits of healthier and productive employees. One good place to start is with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which has developed a voluntary National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and released an action guide to help employers address mental health issues.

By being proactive, organizations can build a better mental health culture that will lead to healthier employees and, ultimately, lower costs. A growing body of evidence shows that front-line managers who can have a conversation about mental health with employees and steer them to helpful resources can make a positive difference.

Challenges won’t be solved overnight, but organizations that have set up mental health training programs are well ahead.

By Marie-Hélène Pelletier, director of workplace mental health at Sun Life Financial Group Benefits in Vancouver. This article is reprinted by permission of Canadian HR Reporter. Copyright Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd., February 10, 2014, Toronto, Ontario, 1-800-387-5164. Web: