Improving mental health literacy

Dr Lucy Shoolbred explores recent employer guidance on mental health and how organisations can ensure optimum levels of wellbeing – both general and mental in the workplace

Two of the UK’s leading health bodies recently declared that employers should provide all line managers with systematic support in mental health and communication skills training. The recommendations that line managers receive specific training and support were a key part of new draft guidance released last month by Public Health England (PHE) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice). The aim of such training would be to provide managers with the knowledge, tools, skills and resources to improve awareness of mental wellbeing at work and employees’ understanding of, and engagement in, organisational decisions. So how do organisations practically implement measures to help ensure optimum levels of workplace and mental wellbeing?

The aim of the PHE and NICE guidanceis to “promote  an environment and culture of participation, equality, safety and fairness in the workplace based on open communication”. With mental ill-health estimated to cost UK employers up to £45 billion per year it is in everyone’s interest to look at how the mental wellbeing of the workforce can be improved. As the guideline proposes, this should be approached from an organisational level, in the first instance, and supported by top management. Suggestions on ways to identify the mental health needs of the organisation are outlined, such as the use of staff surveys. Effective interactions are encouraged to highlight and minimise sources of workplace stress. There is also emphasis on helping employees to better understand, and improve engagement in, organisational decisions. These collaborative processes will begin to demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to wellbeing.

There has been growing pressure on managers to perform their line managerial duties, in addition to supporting their team members

Mental health and communication skills training

Specifically recommended is that line managers, from all sizes of business, are given systematic support in mental health and communication skills training. Recent research shows us that only 13% of managers have received any training in workplace mental health. This, despite the fact that the two UK health bodies who produced the guidance found evidence that increasing managers’ knowledge of mental health leads to more employees accessing support services that are available to them. Furthermore, Dr Paul Chrisp, director of NICE’s centre for guidelines, says: “Providing managers with skills to discuss mental wellbeing improves the relationship between manager and employee so that they can identify and reduce works stressors.”

Since the start of the pandemic there has been growing pressure on managers to perform their line managerial duties, in addition to supporting their team members, who like them, are adjusting to new ways of working. The uncertainty of the last eighteen months means staff members are feeling more stressed and anxious so managers are having to facilitate some difficult conversations. Although it may feel there is little space in the diary to focus on the mental wellbeing of staff, investing in training line managers will not only better equip managers but can help to reduce absenteeism and increase profit.

When it comes to what the manager training might look like, the draft guidance suggests it should cover identifying the signs of mental ill-health, how to have a conversation with an employee about their mental wellbeing and ensure access to trusted mental health resources/information. As well as gaining an understanding of the stigma associated with poor mental health, managers should not overlook the influence of factors outside of the workplace on mental health, such as caring responsibilities, financial strain etc. Giving managers the right skills and gaining a better understanding of mental health will help them feel more confident about supporting the mental health needs of their team.

Training evaluation 

As with any new work practice, NICE and PHE advise evaluating the effects manager’s training has on employee mental health outcomes and highlight the importance of ongoing monitoring. We must not forget that managers too are employees, so the guidance encourages a peer-to-peer means of support for them.

A further consideration here is for senior management to empower managers so they can make reasonable adjustments to work patterns, such as reducing or redistributing workload and sanctioning flexible hours. With many staff now working a blended model of home and office working, it will be crucial that line managers adopt ways of looking out for the mental health needs of all staff regardless of their place of work, avoiding any form of ‘presence disparity.’

Reports last year suggested that staff are more likely to share how they are feeling with a line manager than HR, so the relationship between manager and employee is pivotal when it comes to wellbeing. At this individual level in the guidance, managers are encouraged to seek out opportunities, either virtually or face to face, for ‘small talk’ or socialising with staff to help build trust and open dialogue. If a member of staff is considered at high risk of experiencing mental ill-health or is already known to have some difficulties, then working through a Wellness Action Plan could be beneficial to both parties and help identify any further support required.

Overall, improving the mental health literacy of managers within an organisation can significantly help to breakdown the unhealthy stigma that has historically surrounded mental health. Creating an open, psychologically safe culture where managers understand the impact of mental ill-health will certainly encourage staff to come forward and talk about their mental health.

Dr Lucy Shoolbred is a charted clinical psychologist at Working Mindset 


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