It’s time to give managers basic training in mental health

You don’t need to be a licensed professional to move the needle on mental health.
You don’t need to be a licensed professional to move the needle on mental health.
Image: REUTERS/Olivia Harris
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Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US 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 problems, according to the World Health Organization. With employees working more hours than ever, it is increasingly difficult to recover or distance oneself from work-related stress. In a Mental Health America survey of 17,000 employees across 19 industries, more than 80% of respondents that workplace stress affected their personal relationships, and 35% said they “always” miss three to five days of work a month because of workplace stress.

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 at. It would turn a contributing factor of mental illness—the workplace—into a protective one.

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.  

Sarah Greenberg is a licensed psychotherapist and leadership coach.