It’s Time to Give Managers Training in Mental Health 101

3 min read
Microsoft 365 / Unsplash

Could managers better serve employee mental health?

Microsoft 365 / Unsplash

Over 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental health challenges every year. More than half of individuals in middle‐ and high‐income countries will experience at least one psychological disorder in their lives. And depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Unfortunately, work is often a contributing factor to mental health issues. While being employed has a positive impact on mental health, a negative work environment can be a cause of both physical and mental health challenges, according to the World Health Organization. With employees spending more than two thirds of their waking hours at work, and working more hours than ever, it is increasingly difficult to recover or distance oneself from work-related stress.

While many ingredients in the workplace influence wellbeing, the role of managers is undeniable—for better or worse. A new report by the Workforce Institute at UKG suggests managers have a greater influence on employee mental health than therapists or doctors, and an influence equal to spouses and partners. But of the 2200 employees surveyed, one in three said their manager fails to recognize the impact they have on their team’s mental well-being. In another Mental Health America survey of 11,300 employees, 40% did not agree that their managers cared about their well-being.

Managers may seem like an unlikely wellspring of mental wellness (after all, the “bad boss” is ubiquitous). But most people spend two-thirds of their waking lives at work, and training managers to help care for their mental health would meet them where they are. It would turn a contributing factor of mental illness—the workplace—into a protective factor of mental health.

Though the evidence for such an approach is limited, new research points to the promise of empowering managers as mental health champions in the workplace. At the end of 2017, The Lancet Psychiatry published a novel study showing the benefits of giving managers just four hours of training on mental health. Specifically, the researchers found that after six months, the managers’ direct reports had an 18% reduction in work-related sick time off (while the control group had a 10% increase). Based on this reduction in work-related sick time off, their cost-benefit analysis concluded that every dollar invested in training yielded a $9.98 return. The study was conducted with a large Australian fire and rescue service, and according to lead author Professor Samuel Harvey, more research is needed to understand if we’d see similar benefits in other populations and work settings.

As a licensed mental health professional, I’d like to dispel the myth that you need to be a licensed professional to move the needle on mental health. When something is as prevalent, stigmatized, and costly as is mental illness in the workplace, it demands solutions that are integrative and embedded into the fabric of daily life. Basic training in mental health promotion doesn’t involve a two-year graduate degree, nor is it intended to turn managers into therapists (that would be a terrible idea). It is just awareness and human relations 101: How to be kind, how to listen, what to look out for, and how to create an environment of emotional (or psychological) safety.

This article is adapted from a version written by Sarah Greenberg, MFT for Quartz.

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