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NOVEMBER 24, 2021 |

The Power of Workplace Mental Health Literacy Training

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The pre-pandemic mental health crisis has only grown as COVID-19 has spread. In the workplace, disability claims related to mental health continue to increase. If there was ever a time for prevention, this is it.

When an employee has a mental health problem that requires them to be on medical leave, employer instincts are to focus on the individual and their path to recover. These are important areas of focus. Disability leaves carry a high cost, for both employer and employee. Getting the employee better — and shortening the recovery path — is a priority for all.

But one form of support that’s not well-ingrained, and often overlooked, is the input of leaders, managers and co-workers. An individual focus remains important. But what if a simple, inexpensive collective action — workplace mental health literacy training — could shorten the recovery path and potentially avoid the need for a leave?

Leaders, managers and co-workers are ideally positioned to help. In many cases, they know the affected individual intimately. But they don’t have the mental health knowledge to recognize issues. They also lack confidence and concrete strategies on how to handle it.

Training Brings Results

Recent research builds on earlier findings that even a short amount of mental health literacy training — as little as two hours — can provide organizational benefits for months. It can reduce mental health suffering, shorten or avoid disability leaves, and enable successful returns to work when a leave occurs.

A meta-analysis by Aimée Gayed and colleagues published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that the benefits of training operate on two levels.

  • First, the training can increase leader and manager understanding of mental health issues and their roles and responsibilities when it comes to employee mental health.
  • Second, it can shift their attitude more empathetically toward mental health in the workplace, which encourages them to address mental health concerns among direct reports.

Other studies have found that co-worker mental health literacy training increased not only knowledge but employee self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual's beliefs about their ability to organize and implement actions to achieve a specific performance. It’s the interaction between behavior, cognition and environment. In terms of mental health support, it’s having a belief that you can help others seek the help they need — or seek it for yourself.

We know from research that if high self-efficacy leads to a higher willingness to use and recommend resources (Employee and family assistance programs, for example, are often under-used). Both managers and coworkers can aid in the “resource use” process by providing direct support and improving awareness of those resources. Managers, in particular,

are uniquely positioned to step in and provide specific feedback or suggestions about resources, especially if job performance is suffering.

Finally, a key side benefit of workplace mental health literacy training is that it lets leaders and co-workers become advocates for their own mental health. And people who are confident in managing their personal mental health are more likely to report engaging in behaviors that support their well-being. That allows them to effectively role model positive well-being, behavior and self-care.

Organizational Opportunity

While mental health literacy training has proven benefits, the issue is that this training is underused. A study by Negrini and colleagues published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation looked specifically at how managers supported employees who were returning to work after experiencing depression (the most frequent diagnosis for mental health disability claims).

The study compared the most frequently implemented actions to the least. The most frequently implemented actions — above 90% frequency — were providing emotional support to the employee and ensuring that the employee had time off for medical appointments.

The least frequently implemented actions — less than 40% of the time — were training for coworkers and supervisors. This suggests a huge opportunity to improve support for workplace mental health through increased literacy training.

There are many consulting firms and professionals who can deliver effective mental health training. And in larger organizations, some internal HR team members may have been trained to deliver it.

If your organization already has a mental health strategy, align your training with it. This can generate more traction and uptake. If your organization doesn’t have such a strategy, mental health training can be an excellent foundation for building one. In this way, training could set things in motion to make an even greater impact on workplace mental health in the future.

In addition, here are three other actions that can supplement formal mental health literacy training.

  • Identify other mental health literacy resources. Connect with your HR partner and get their input on how you can bring additional mental health literacy to your team. These resources may be available from government agencies, through private consulting firms, or your own employee and family assistance program.
  • Create a calendar of training, every year.Expand the mental health conversation beyond a one-time event. Out of sight means out of mind, so regular mental health reminders are critical. Scheduling mental health training and related events throughout the year increases the chance that the right information will be there at the right time for the right people, even with employee turnover.
  • Communicate personally and confidently about mental health. If you’re a manager or leader, there are many ways you can communicate with your team about mental health to increase understanding and decrease stigma. This may mean acknowledging when you take a mental health day. Or sharing that you used the employee and family assistance program proactively to address issues you were having. No matter how many times you tell your team that you support mental health, nothing is going to speak louder than modelling it. And make the conversation two way, giving employees a chance to discuss their role and life stresses. This can prevent stress from developing into something more severe, including an absence from work.

One of the social determinants of health is social support. Mental health literacy training encourages this type of outreach. These short, targeted training mental health literacy training sessions can provide significant long-term benefits.

By increasing mental health literacy now, employers can improve issue prevention, decrease workplace absence and improve mental health.

About the Author

Marie-Hélène Pelletier, PhD, MBA, is a workplace mental health strategist, registered psychologist and professional speaker who teaches at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.

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