How can managers be trained to support staff with mental health at work?

As a new report reveals a need for more support of employees with mental health at work, Mary Isokariari takes an indepth look at the findings.

Employers across the UK are failing to provide adequate support to employees or equip managers with the skills to help them, according to new research.

study by the charity Business in the Community suggests more than three quarters of workers aged 16 to 64 have experienced symptoms of poor mental health, and nearly two thirds of those with mental health problems believe work was a contributing factor.

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Many of the 20,000 employees surveyed said their employers lacked awareness, training and responsiveness to mental health issues. More than half said their employers took no action when they disclosed their symptoms of poor mental health.

Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director at Business in the Community, says mental wellbeing was not “translating into the right workplace cultures or adequate support for employees experiencing poor mental health.”

“Employers must accept the scale of mental ill health in the workplace and start taking a preventative approach now.

“This means getting the work culture right in the first place so that they promote good work and work life-balance. Progress will only happen when employers approach mental ill health as they would physical ill health – doing what they can to prevent ill health occurring or escalating, and ensuring proper support for employees when it happens. Employees must feel that the workplace is supportive of, rather than, detrimental to their mental health.”

“People are suffering in silence and feel they can’t disclose that they have a mental health issue,” added Aston.

“We know the role of line managers is absolutely crucial imbedding mental health into the organisation culture employee wellbeing through a line manager. Before we can talk about training should not underestimate the importance of leaderships, leaders walking the talk, which means that they can talk openly about mental health as the same way we talk about physical health, so it’s normalising mental health as physical health. 

“One of the big problems with is because of the stigma about mental health people automatically assume you’re talking about mentally ill-health as the word mental has so much stigma attached to it as you know one of our calls to action is to sign up to Time for Change, which is a public commitment giving permission by a senior person that it’s ok to talk.”

Breaking the culture of silence

The charity is calling for employers to commit to the Time to Change Employer’s Pledge to help break the stigma and culture that surrounds mental health and encouraging employers to invest the training in basic mental health literacy for all employees and first aid training in mental health to support line manager capability. In addition, be proactive by asking staff about their experiences to identify any issues that exist in the organisation. 

“We know that line managers are often are promoted for technical skills and not for their interpersonal skills and even some of them who don’t have natural interpersonal skills, they can learn to say thank you and give feedback there is something every lien manage can do with basic steps.

The charity designs training packages for companies based around what is needed and urges firms to be public about their employees’ wellbeing. Companies like P&G have Healthy Minds Champions, who are trained to listen to other employees experiencing issues and help equip them with resilience techniques in the workplace.

An Acas spokesperson says:“Mental health problems can cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence so it is an issue that all businesses need to take seriously. Acas has some good practice advice and training for line managers on how to spot the signs, deal with mental issues amongst their staff and how to promote health and well-being at work.”

The report revealed that managers do want to help – 76 per cent believe that staff wellbeing is their responsibility, yet 80 per cent say organisational barriers prevent them from delivering on this.

The mental health charity Mind and the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, have jointly developed disclosure tools to help managers overcome these challenges.

Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing, says: “It’s concerning but not surprising that so many employees say they have experienced poor mental health where their workplace has been a contributory factor. This latest survey provides further evidence of the scale of stress and poor mental health at work and highlights the need for employers to take this issue seriously.

“Employers need to do everything they can to create an environment conducive to good mental health and we know that those who do put in place wellbeing initiatives reap the rewards in terms of higher levels of staff productivity, morale and retention.

“At Mind, we advise employers on how they can tackle the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health, support members of staff experiencing a mental health problem, and put in place measures to promote good wellbeing for all staff. Wellbeing initiatives needn’t be large or expensive, often it’s just about regularly creating the space to talk about these issues and offering employees things like flexible working hours, Employee Assistance Programmes and subsidised exercise classes.”

Alison Roper (below), a Knowledge Connections Internal Consultant, Mars UK, praised the support of her employer after her young daughter passed away suddenly in 2004. 

“One of the first things I had to face was ringing my line manager. The overwhelming message was be where you need to be and don’t worry at all about work.

“Three weeks after my daughter’s death, I asked my manager about coming back to work and he told me not to worry about it; that there was no pressure at all.

“When I returned, I was given access to a life coach. She really helped me on the journey of getting back into work, because that was what I wanted to do the most. The counselling at work gave me a safety net and colleagues also put me in touch with charities that could help so that I had a real network around me. 

Roper the culture of silence was due to the perception of fear of being sacked or not considered for promotion. She advised line managers to “show their vulnerability themselves” when supporting team members on mental health.

“Sometimes it is just making it clear that you had a bad day and bringing your own human element to work. If an Associate is struggling, it is important to give them other routes to help or say ‘I’m here if you need to talk’ – it’ setting the scene that it is ok to need support,” she added. 

“A wellbeing objective in a personal development plan can be a valuable tool. It brings conversation round to more than just functional objectives and it means that you can take the time to have a conversation about personal things.”


Male managers are less confident than female managers in responding to poor mental health, yet are less enthusiastic about mental health training, according to the survey. 

Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy & Standards, at The Institute of Leadership & Management, emphasised the importance of creating an effective culture around training and development:

She says: “There is much research showing how managers are fundamental to our experience at work. From overseeing workloads and conducting performance reviews to signing off holiday leave, the relationship is incredibly important, they are often the gateway to the rest of the organisation and frequently key to how successful and engaged an employee is.

“Line managers need training to get the best out of this relationship and ensure that every employee is able to perform well. The survey showed that many people experiencing mental health problems do not seek or receive any support. It is therefore essential to train line mangers to spot signs, be able to hold sensitive conversations and know how to provide or signpost to effective support.

“Training provision should be appropriate for both the individual and their business context. Some people may benefit from being sent away on a one or two-day course, but many others, will get significant benefit from a lunchtime or breakfast session. Offering short and frequent training opportunities ensures maximum attendance.

 “Training ensures people are equipped with the right skills and able to implement the necessary actions. This is reinforced by effective senior leadership; role modelling the right approaches and challenging the culture of silence that often surrounds mental health at work.

“If you have senior leaders talking about their own experiences of mental health, how they stay well, or simply ensuring mental health is an open topic of conversation, training has greater impact.

“If people feel it is OK to talk about mental health then it is much easier to discuss their training needs or to invite people to a workshop. You want everyone to feel they can contribute to the conversation about mental health without being judged, and you want to see ensure that involvement with this issue is a positive part of their development.”



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