How to evolve mental health training in the workplace.

Employee mental health appears to have become a priority for a growing number of employers, according to results from the 2019 Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey. “I am seeing increased awareness of the mental health challenges that any of us can have at any point, and increased awareness about doing something about them,” affirmed Marie-Hélène Pelletier, a practicing psychologist, advisor and leadership resilience keynote speaker.

Fifty-one percent of plan sponsors indicated having a mental health training program in place for managers and/or employees, up from 37 percent in 2018, reports the Sanofi survey. Employer size is a factor: the result increases to 73 percent among employers with 500 or more employees, compared to 30 percent among those with fewer than 250 employees.

Mental health also figures prominently in the future. Among the 71 percent of plan sponsors who intend to invest in at least one area of employee wellness in the next three years, they are most likely to dedicate funding/resources to mental health (61 percent).

The numbers are definitely encouraging, noted Karen MacNeill, a practicing psychologist and co-founder of Headversity, who presented on workplace mental health strategies at the 2019 TELUS Health Conference earlier this year. Yet it’s important for employers to invest in the right areas, and to take a strategic approach. “We are seeing a general rise in stress levels, in part because of today’s smart technology world. The world is changing, and mental health training needs to evolve with it.”

MacNeill and Pelletier offer the following suggestions to help employers seeking to better support the mental health of employees:

Be preventative and proactive. Early mental-health training programs focussed on recognizing and responding to employees who may be struggling with mental illness. While this remains important, resilience training—which includes building personal skills such as mindfulness and the regulation of emotions—deserves equal attention since it can prevent mental health issues. “Resilience is the ability to tolerate the stress that’s put on you and cope with any challenges that come up, all the while performing and executing at your best,” said MacNeill.

Look in the mirror. “As we consider mental health training in the workplace, we also need to step back and take an objective look at the mental health of the workplace,” emphasized Pelletier. Actions need to be considered at the individual, team and employer levels. Employee surveys, interpersonal skills training, leadership role modelling and HR policies help lay the foundation for a psychologically healthy work environment.

Be strategic. One-off workshops and annual awareness campaigns are not enough. Work with a provider to develop a long-term plan that brings in all relevant business units, such as human resources and occupational health and safety. “As more employers look for solutions, it’s become a bit of a buyer-beware market. Be sure to partner with someone with solutions that are evidence-based,” advised MacNeill.

Use technology to engage. While digital technology and social media may be a growing source of mental health issues, they also represent an effective way to engage employees over the long term—and engagement is essential for behaviour change. “Some people are on their phones literally hundreds of times a day. We need to meet them where they are at,” said MacNeill. Smartphone apps need to be interactive and can follow up on key messages delivered during the onsite workshops that typically launch mental-health training programs.

Consider the bigger health picture. “It’s very important to integrate mental, physical and financial health because that is how people experience life. The three are very much interconnected,” said Pelletier. Financial health supports are relatively new to employer wellness programs, and therefore may deserve more attention when allocating resources.

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