The Dos and Don'ts of workplace mental health training

By the time this article will be published, I will have delivered close to 200 keynote addresses

The Dos and Don'ts of workplace mental health training

by Stephane Grenier, owner of Mental Health Innovations

By the time this article will be published, I will have delivered close to 200 keynote addresses over the last eight years about workplace mental health across Canada. Most of these have been part of larger-scoped conferences. In the majority of cases, I usually try to come early so that I can attend workshops and speak with attendees. These numerous discussions have exposed me to a wide variety of approaches and opinions about mental health in the workplace. My goal has been to distill all this information and create innovative ideas about what workplace mental health training should look like.

But first let me share with you what I feel are two fundamental flaws in both method and philosophy regarding workplace mental health training.

The first problem is that in the absence of any other approach, clinical and academic information has permeated the Canadian curriculum for workplace mental health. What this means is that many workshops on mental health are not calibrated to the needs of managers and workers. The information is factual and evidence-based, but it’s not what people truly need to change how they deal with mental health in the workplace.

The curriculum should not be based on diagnostics, and symptom-based narratives, but rather on one that enables the work force to understand how to connect with individuals and provide support. Instead of talking about symptoms, we need to focus on behaviours and on what everyday people can do when they suspect someone is not doing well. Understanding what it means to “not be doing well,” is all that a workplace colleague needs to trigger a supportive response. For those hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have received Mental Health First Aid training, I would be curious to find out if six months later it was deemed helpful to know the difference between bipolar disorder and depression in lending a helping hand to a colleague. Let’s remember that while this may be highly factual and interesting knowledge, it may not always be useful. In fact, I would suggest that an overly clinical narrative in the workplace serves only to create more social distancing between human beings, who are led to believe that all they can do is refer someone who is not well to a doctor or the EAP when in fact they can do so much more.

The second problem is that philosophically, many of the workplace mental health trainers adopt the approach of providing the tools to deal with mental health issues. On the surface, this seems like a good approach, but what is unfortunate, is that it assumes that people have no tools in the first place. This mentality ignores reality, and the basic principles of adult education. It’s a didactic approach which assumes that the trainees, many of whom are adults in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, have learned nothing along their life journey. The unintended consequence of this approach is that it reinforces the perceptions that without these specialized tools, all they can do is refer those affected by mental health problems to specialists, clinicians and therapists. This creates distance between humans and therefore further dehumanizes workplaces.

I believe a better approach is to operate with the underlying assumption that the “participants” of workplace mental health workshops and training have accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge throughout their life. These experiences and knowledge are the core of what I feel are pre-existing tools, already residing in everyone and that simply need to be leveraged to support those who have mental health problems. This type of approach sets the tone for a lot more learning than that of telling people they are coming to the table empty-handed.

I believe that these six core factors should be considered when identifying a suitable consultant or training program for workplace mental health;

  • Find an approach that is participative and engaging; one that assumes that managers and workers come to the table with a skill set to help combat the problem and support those in need. No more than half of classroom time should be didactic, while the rest should be spent facilitating meaningful discussions aligned with adult learning principles.
  • The training organization should not have a set curriculum, formula, or one-size-fits-all approach. If there is no flexibility, and no willingness to tailor the approach to your needs, avoid that organization. A qualitative needs assessment is necessary to ascertain what core problems exist and how to tackle them. The training organization then needs to prepare themselves to adapt the training to your specific needs.
  • The training program should have an embedded theme that recognizes that preventive support is crucial. This will foster your organizational culture to shift towards an organically non-judgmental and supportive culture, where leaders understand the importance of developing interpersonal relationship with employees well before problems occur. Focussing only on what to do when people are unwell is not wise.
  • Training must focus on moving away from a diagnostic, symptoms-based, heavily scientific language and approach to workplace mental health. If a program’s sole function is to abdicate all responsibility for employee health to clinicians, then it’s only contributing to a tried, tested, and flawed method that has done very little to stem the growing tide of mental health costs in Canada. Employees don’t need to know what the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says; they need to know how they can support a person who is struggling, as opposed to what treatment is needed for a patient. The latter is for clinicians; the former is for the workplace.
  • Training should include all employees. When only managers are trained, negative perceptions are formed by those excluded. When employees are left out of the loop, the training is not conducive to shaping a culture of collaboration. The point of training is to reset the way an entire organization perceives mental health in the workplace. As such provisions to reach out to all must be made. Having said this, the approach and curriculum should slightly differ for managers and front-line staff.
  • Workplace mental health training should not focus on “mental health literacy,” which is often just a euphemism for “let’s teach everyone the latest mental health buzzwords and symptoms.” What training needs to do is raise employees’ emotional intelligence. We’ve been taught to think that we need solutions for everything. For a company, operationally speaking, that is the right approach. But when it comes to human beings and mental health, we need an entirely opposite attitude. Managers and employees need to be trained to be comfortable having a conversation in which they are not necessarily expected to provide a solution. When productivity, profits, and solutions are taken out of the mix, the focus becomes the caring relationship between two human beings. That relationship sets the conditions for other positive benefits to ensue, because when people feel supported they are more likely to engage with the resources available to them and comply with recommendations, should sick leave be deemed necessary.

Put simply, effective workplace mental health training should focus on caring for the human being, all the while taking into consideration each individual’s path and experiences that have contributed to their toolbox for life.

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