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Paul Barrett

Bank Workers Charity

Head of Wellbeing

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Mental health training for line managers: how to make it work


Many businesses today have made addressing mental health at work a strategic priority. For those of us committed to the employee wellbeing agenda this is an exciting development. There are some great examples, of UK employers tackling mental health at work in innovative ways, like Barclay’s This is Me campaign, and they’re changing the way their people think about mental health conditions.

Many companies have created mental health champions, often at very senior level, to signal their intent and the list of organisations signing up to the Time to Change pledge is growing all the time. And yet the step that could make the biggest difference of all is taken by only a small minority of businesses.

Training line managers in understanding and managing mental health issues could change the culture around mental health at work more than any other intervention. But a recent BITC report found that only 24% of line managers had received mental health training,  despite the fact that line managers are expected to be the first organisational touch point for any employee struggling with a mental health problem.

Giving line managers high quality mental health training would make a material difference to the line managers themselves and to the large numbers of employees in the UK with poor mental health.

If it is so important, what does good line manager mental health training look like? What core content should it include and what are its parameters? For any organisations thinking about purchasing mental health training or developing their own, what considerations should be uppermost? 

Whether the training is delivered face to face or digitally, if it is going to succeed it ought to take account of a number of key factors.

1) Firstly it has to have a practical focus.

It is difficult to get hard-pressed line managers signed up to training, especially if is time consuming, unless it is going to confer clear practical benefits that will enhance their skills and support them in their work.

2) It must go beyond awareness and towards skills

Whilst understanding mental health issues is undeniably important, the training needs to move beyond raising awareness, to include skill acquisition.

Line managers, more than anyone, need to be able to engage in conversations around mental health, to be confident in discussing the issues, to recognise their own limits in providing support and to be able to refer on to specialist help if needed.

Any training must cover this breadth of content. Line managers really ought to be the first port of call when an employee is struggling with a mental health problem. But the recent BITC mental health at work survey found that only 13% of respondents with mental health issues disclosed them to their manager or to HR.

That will only change when employees feel confident that their managers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to respond to their needs in a sensitive and appropriate manner.

3) The training must also get line managers to focus on themselves

This encourages them to examine their own behaviours and how they impact on the mental health of their teams, for good and for bad. It should guide them towards those behaviours and management styles that are supportive of positive mental health

4) It must focus more generally on psychologically-informed environments

The training should show line managers how they can take steps to create a psychologically healthy working environment, through highlighting relevant policies and procedures and by promoting any wellbeing programmes offered by the business.

5) It must focus on them too

It needs to encourage managers to look after their own wellbeing and provide them with helpful pointers to do so. A line manager will only be in a position to properly support their team if their own wellbeing is in good shape.

What about the format of the training?

To some extent it depends on what you want it to achieve. Face- to-face training can be excellent for communicating the breadth of issues I have described.

It is particularly good for exploring practical issues and for sharing experiences. Where the number of participants is low it particularly effective. However there is a question about how you get the core knowledge and skills to embed.

Face to face training is typically a one-off intervention. It is often very well received but in the absence of reinforcement, the learning tends to diminish with the passage of time and as the everyday demands of the day-job reassert themselves.

We’ve all attended excellent face to face training, vowing to put the lessons into practice, only to consign the accompanying powerpoint slides to some hidden corner of our desktop never to be seen again. Any face-to- face training should involve some form of post training reinforcement whether it’s a refresher course further down the line or additional learning materials to help the learning to stick.

For big organisations it is often hard to release large numbers of line managers to attend face-to-face programmes, especially as training that seeks to adequately cover skills development may involve a full day’s attendance or more.  This is where a digital approach comes into its own.

Digital training can be undertaken at a convenient time and if it is modular, the learning is incremental and more easily digestible.

Importantly it can be returned to if a refresher is needed or if issues arise at work that were covered earlier in the training.

Digital training has become increasingly sophisticated and can, through the incorporation of animations, videos and gamification, be highly engaging. It is also possible to build exercises into modules to test the extent of participants’ learning and to reinforce essential messages.

This is the route we found to be most effective as we worked with Mind to develop our line manager mental health training pilot for the banking sector.  Of course there is more than one way to skin a cat and I wouldn’t want to minimise the impact of face-to face training in addressing mental health at work.

It can be very powerful, especially if led by someone with lived experience. It is also unsurpassed at enabling line managers to learn from each other.

At the end of the day, whatever route is taken, the most important thing is to ensure that all managers get the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills in this area. I was very struck by a comment we received from one employee that undertook our training.

They said, “This training has transformed how I conduct my performance reviews.” I thought that was brilliant. But in some ways I shouldn’t have been surprised, because although the course had a limited scope - to develop line managers’ skills in dealing with mental health problems – what it was effectively doing was upgrading their soft skills and getting them to reflect on how they manage and communicate with their people.

And that is an underappreciated but happy consequence of such training.

In equipping line managers to deal with mental health issues at work, important though that is, you’re doing much more than that. You’re also taking their people skills to a higher level and the benefits will be felt in many other spheres of their work.

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Author Profile Picture
Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing

Read more from Paul Barrett

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