Managers need training on mental illness: Study

More than 90 per cent aren't trained to handle mental-health issues
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/13/2004

Employers may say they recognize the importance of addressing mental health issues in the workplace, but according to a survey, more than nine in 10 have not trained managers to do so.

The survey of more than 130 employers in Ontario was conducted by consulting house Mercer and by Mental Health Works, a service set up by the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Only seven per cent of respondents have trained managers to identify and address mental health issues. Close to two-thirds (65 per cent) said they have no plans to train managers on the issue in the next 12 months.

In contrast, an overwhelming majority (99 per cent, many of whom were human resource professionals) said they were aware of the duty to accommodate mental illness at work. Four out of five respondents said mental illness was driving up usage of prescription drug plans and increasing strain among employees. Three in four said mental health issues were increasing group benefits usage and short-term disability claims.

When asked what action they took to address mental illness, the most common response was to increase the range of services offered by the employee assistance program (37 per cent of respondents). Twenty-four per cent of respondents said they increased their resources for disability management, and 16 per cent said they identified and reduced sources of stress in the workplace.

Mary Ann Baynton, director of Mental Health Works, said the survey findings confirmed what she has long suspected.

“In many companies, managers are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all,” said Baynton. “They often will ignore the problem until they can’t. They will often delegate and ask someone else to deal with it.”

Worse yet, they may sometimes try to address the problem in such a way as to make things worse, said Baynton. “If they really don’t understand what the problem is, if they deal with it as a personality issue, it can create even more problems.”

When HR departments are called in to handle the problem, said Baynton, it’s likely that the situation has already escalated. “The HR person doesn’t know the build up, which means that the HR person is doing the work blindfolded.”

In fact, it’s usually the HR department that contacts Baynton’s staff to ask for training for managers.

Apart from training managers, staff at Mental Health Works also help employers accommodate people with mental illness. They start out by talking with managers to define the job that needs to be done. They then approach the employee to think of ways to modify the conditions of work and still get the job done.

“We use shuttle diplomacy in order to protect the mental health of the employee and to allow them to negotiate without being overwhelmed by the anxiety that comes with the whole process,” said Baynton.

She cautioned that employers who devise solutions and impose them on the employee are only setting themselves up for failure. “A solution that’s created in collaboration with the employee already comes with their commitment, and that’s what we want: commitment not compliance.”

Failure is also guaranteed in instances when workers put pressure on themselves to go back to work before they’re ready, she added.

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