The importance of training for mental health

Choosing right program critical to ensuring maximum effectiveness
By Jacqueline Delfosse and Denise Richardson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/12/2017

Many Canadian employers have come to realize that supporting and promoting workplace mental health offers real advantages in terms of reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and better overall employee well-being. And yet only 39 per cent have implemented a mental health strategy, according to the Conference Board of Canada’s 2016 study Healthy Brains at Work: Employer-Sponsored Mental Health Benefits and Programs.

One of the reasons why — cited by 32 per cent of the 239 respondents — was a lack of corporate knowledge on how to do so. There is no single approach applicable to all workforces: An effective mental health strategy focuses on specific workplace needs. However, even very diverse organizations agree that one essential component for a mental health strategy is training — although exactly when, how and who receives that training varies.

Prep work

Before offering a mental health training program, it is valuable to develop a comprehensive strategy so the organization has a clear idea of how training fits into the big picture and complements other wellness initiatives. That involves understanding what issues exist in the workplace, what needs to change and how training can help effect the transformation.

“It’s not enough to simply establish a need for mental health training,” says Holly Britton, manager of health, wellness and safety at Durham Regional Police Services (DRPS) in Ontario. “That’s relatively easy to do, especially if people managers are requesting guidance. What’s important is to identify what you want the training to accomplish and how you will measure success.”

Even before an organization determines how training fits into its mental health strategy, it is important to “lay the groundwork,” according to Mike Murray, manager of HR and employee wellness at Bruce Power in Tiverton, Ont. And at his organization, that means communicating the tools available for staff.

“First, we informed employees about support that was already available to them,” he says. “This was followed by developing a comprehensive, multi-year communication program with an emphasis on the importance of good mental health as a natural extension of the company’s previous focus on physical health and fitness. We wanted to help employees see that going to a psychiatrist was the same as going to a dentist.” 

Another important preliminary step may be gaining the support of senior leadership. The fact that leaders at DRPS were committed helped set the tone for the organization’s work culture aspirations, says Britton.

“We’re in the first-responder industry, so our employees often experience stress and trauma,” she says. “A top-down approach led by our innovative leadership team was especially important in our case for reducing stigma and gaining traction for the program.”

In some cases, having the leaders themselves take mental health training early in the process of developing a strategy can help gain their support.

Equally important is ensuring the organization “walks the talk” and its human resources policies and procedures are aligned with its mental health strategy. This step will always require a review of guidelines but, in some cases, may necessitate a revamp of the disability absence management process.

Training that fits

Not all mental health training programs are alike, so options need to be considered carefully.

“The fundamental first step is to find a provider that understands your organization’s culture and challenges,” says Glorianna Shearme, health and wellness consultant at the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) in Yellowknife.

Once an employer settles on a program, it may be a good idea to “test drive” the training on a small group — the HR team, for example — to see if it’s appropriate or if any tweaks need to be made before implementing across the organization, says Murray.

For many employers, flexibility in how the program is delivered is essential. The GNWT implemented mental health training in January 2016. To address the high cost of travelling to and from Northern Canada, the government chose a provider that offered online training.

“Organizations facing similar challenges should find a provider that can deliver training in different ways, such as online training or in a classroom,” says Shearme. “Webinars provide an opportunity to train staff who work in remote regions and allow them equal access to training.”

This flexibility can be especially important if an organization decides to offer different training for various roles. For example, the GNWT offers one-hour mental health webinars to employees, she says. Additionally, managers and supervisors can sign up for half-day workshops that teach them how to recognize signs an employee may be dealing with an issue, and provide them with a framework for supporting the employee.

It is also important to keep an open mind and consider other options if efforts miss the mark.

“Our initial training session in 2016 was a two-day mental health training program in which 700 managers would have learned, in a fair amount of detail, about mental health diagnosis and treatment,” says Murray. “We found that to be too cumbersome and too detailed (gave too much information to absorb) so we have made the training more bite-sized and brought in external trainers to speak to smaller groups.”

Bruce Power wants managers to notice changes in behaviour from “normal” and to know what to do —  but not try to diagnose or recommend treatment, he says.

“We find that interactive learning is much more effective. By creating a dialogue, people learn from each other and build a network of resources from amongst their co-workers.”

Measure culture change

It is difficult for employers to gauge whether they have improved mental health in the workplace, as culture shift is challenging to measure.

Bruce Power implemented pre- and post-training surveys as part of their process. A baseline survey before the employee training primarily asked how comfortable employees felt discussing mental health issues — both their own and other employees’ perceived struggles — and the same survey was conducted again post-training.

“We were pleased to see results that indicate lower stigma and a greater willingness to talk,” says Murray.

There are also more concrete measures, such as decreases in disability absence at DRPS, says Britton, but there is more of a sense that training is having a positive impact. “Our managers feel more comfortable asking their reports if they’re OK.”

Metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of mental health initiatives are under review at the GNWT, according to Shearme.

“Employees, however, want additional in-person training to allow for more in-depth discussion, and managers want support, such as hands-on tools, to assist them in having conversations with employees with mental health issues.”

The GNWT is acting on these requests through updates to its employee and family assistance site, and additions to its learning and development calendar.

Mental health training is one initiative in a larger strategy to address workplace mental health. But to maximize effectiveness, it is important to ensure the organization has not only laid the groundwork for training, but has chosen the most appropriate program.

“Health and wellness in the workplace requires organizational resources, but it’s worthwhile because we value our employees as people,” says Shearme.

Both at Morneau Shepell in Toronto, Jacqueline Delfosse is senior consultant of workplace learning solutions, and Denise Richardson is director of workplace learning solutions. For more information, visit

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