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Margot Radicati di Brozolo



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Why you need to train managers and leaders as part of your mental health strategy

To change the culture around mental health support at work, managers need to be actively involved in the process.

Most of us are familiar with Sunday night dread. The weekend has come and gone, and with it the carefree feeling that time belongs to us. We are left with a knot in our stomach that tightens with every reminder of an upcoming deadline, a to-do list item or a difficult colleague. The old saying ‘choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ has misled employers and employees alike for some time now. We believe that the key determinant of job satisfaction is enjoying the nature of what we do and so, in a way, the onus is on us to seek that out.

Ensuring that managers and leaders are trained on mental health and are encouraged to be vocal about what they learn and how they look after themselves is a key driver in shifting company culture.

Despite this, we all know that as much as we love our day-to-day role, we start to resent our jobs when hours build up, clients are demanding and we feel unsupported by our peers and leaders. Stress and frustration can begin to build up and, without tools to look after ourselves, we can easily slide into burnout, anxiety, depression or other conditions. So how do we fix this when eliminating all external stressors is unfeasible for most companies?

The most powerful way to drive change is to empower employees to look after their mental health and to create an environment where everyone is encouraged to look after themselves and others.

While there are many ways to implement a wellbeing strategy within a company, leaders are often overlooked. They are usually the ones who sign off on initiatives and therefore regard them as something for more junior people within the company. It is crucial to remember, however, that employees are only likely to follow suit if they see their managers and CEOs taking mental health seriously.

Starting from the top shows commitment

The fact that mental health is increasingly prominent in the news is a great accomplishment which we should all continue to build upon and encourage. Although we are still far from where we need to be, we have come a long way in the past five years and some employees have started to feel the positive repercussions in their workplaces.

Despite this, many people are sceptical about their company implementing a mental health strategy. They feel that, because it is a ‘topic of the moment’ (their words, not mine), their employers are running initiatives as part of a tick-box exercise. They are therefore less invested because they feel that, ultimately, the company does not have a real interest in their wellbeing. Employee response is radically different in companies where leaders are part of the mental health initiative.

For example, in companies where leaders share their experiences with mental health stigma or where managers attend mental health awareness training, a sense of camaraderie is much more likely to ensue. Employees feel that there is a real, collective interest in their wellbeing, and therefore are more invested in learning and implementing tools to look after their mental health.

Leading by example drives real change

When employees are trained on, for example, how stress works and the tools available to them to look after their mental health they often say: “it’s great that I can now understand what’s going on in my head and how to look after myself, but my manager just doesn’t get it”.

With this mentality and the feeling of being misunderstood, people are less likely to take a break when they feel like they need to manage their ‘stress funnel’, go for a mindful walk around the block, or even take time out to speak to a therapist. They fear that they will be seen as the ‘delicate flower’ of their organisation and therefore unfit to carry out their job appropriately. As a result, they continue to work long hours without taking the time they need for themselves, and are more likely to burn out.

In reality, there are many managers and leaders out there who are highly tuned into theirs and others’ mental health, and understand the need to look after their wellbeing. Unfortunately, they in turn are also fearful of being open about taking time for themselves, and a vicious cycle is formed.

Then there are managers and leaders who have a limited understanding of the term ‘wellbeing’. Within this group, some take the view that, because they struggled to get to where they are, everyone else should as well. Others simply are a product of their generation and need to be educated on mental health, how it works and how to look after it.

In any case, training managers and leaders on mental health and encouraging them to take action is key. Whether they need courage to take action or knowledge and skills on how to do so, they can start to model what a mindful approach to work looks like and hopefully impart some wisdom onto their direct reports.  

Communication encourages participation  

Many companies have had employee assistance programmes (EAPs) in place for some time now, yet have seen limited use of their counselling services. As we all know, this is most likely not down to lack of need for counselling, so why do so few people use them?

In the past, these services have often been advertised on a small poster on the back of the bathroom door or in a remote corner of the office. How many of us are likely to use a service that is advertised as a dirty little secret? Thankfully, many companies are starting to advertise wellbeing workshops and initiatives as an exciting, recommended resource to be taken advantage of.

Managers are less likely to shy away from difficult conversations if they have a clear idea of what is within their remit and how to signpost direct reports who are struggling.  

Unfortunately, line managers and C-suite professionals rarely join in with human resources on the promotion. As a result, employees can feel like the people whose duty it is to look after them (i.e. HR) are encouraging them to attend, but their messaging is at odds with the people who ultimately rate their performance. Ensuring that managers and leaders are trained on mental health and are encouraged to be vocal about what they learn and how they look after themselves is a key driver in shifting company culture.

Not only does it maximise chances of employees using them as role models, but it also means that they are more likely to be open and communicate with them when they are struggling. When they do, managers have the tools to have a supportive conversation and, most importantly, can signpost them to the help and resources they need.  

Nudging can make a big difference

Most of us have been in a situation where we know what we need to do to get out of a negative loop but are confused and unable to do so. In a company where everyone is encouraged to understand mental health and support their teams, employees are more likely to turn to their managers when they feel overwhelmed.

While managers should by no means replace a therapist or solve their employees’ issues – and this should be made very clear – training managers equips them to have a constructive conversation with their direct reports and to nudge them to take action. Whether this means speaking to a therapist or creating a wellbeing toolkit, a simple conversation can make a big difference to someone who is stuck.

Furthermore, managers are less likely to shy away from difficult conversations if they have a clear idea of what is within their remit and how to signpost direct reports who are struggling.  

Making the most out of a mental health budget

Many companies are starting to look into how to bring mental health into their organisations, but with all the options out there it can be hard to determine the best use of budget. While there are many ways to encourage employees to look after themselves (workshops, training, therapy sessions etc.), they are unlikely to have real, lasting impact unless leaders and managers actively participate in the initiative.

Involving everyone sends the message that leaders are taking responsibility for changing the culture of the organisation, but that the onus is on all employees to look after themselves and others, and to seek help when they need it. While this will not change companies overnight, it is likely to make employees within them less prone to Sunday night dread over time.

Interested in this topic? Read Mental health training for line managers: useful online resources

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Margot Radicati di Brozolo


Read more from Margot Radicati di Brozolo

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