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Opinion: Manager mental health training should be mandatory – here’s why

Stigma, lack of support drive need for cultural shift in management
Employees fear disclosure and often prioritize self-reliance when it comes to their mental health.

Business leaders are responsible for the people they lead, and right now in Canada, we are failing them. While workplaces have made significant strides in improving physical health and safety measures, the same level of attention has not extended to mental health.

One in two Canadians will experience a mental health challenge by the time they are 40. We spend an average of one-third of our lives at work, which means our workplaces must be part of the solution. And yet, 75 per cent of working Canadians do not feel they can disclose a mental illness to their employer or colleagues. Alarmingly, one in three working Canadian men report experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-injury a few times a week. Nearly half (47 per cent) of those surveyed by Community Savings Credit Union and HeadsUpGuys said they rely on themselves and never ask for help. These statistics highlight the critical need for comprehensive manager mental health training.

Leaders have a responsibility to ensure managers have the skills necessary to lead their teams effectively. Key today is the ability to identify signs of mental health stress and provide employees with appropriate support.

Mental health training is crucial and should be mandatory for every person taking on a role in people management. Research shows that mental health training in the workplace reduces stigma, increases help-seeking behaviours such as counselling and therapy, shifts workplace culture and improves knowledge of mental health and addiction. These are key changes to help reduce suicidality in Canada.

When designing a mental health training program, there are key elements to consider to ensure success. 

First and foremost, it must be a company-wide priority. Culture starts at the top, and managers can lead this shift by endorsing mental health initiatives and fostering an environment where interactions with individuals facing mental health challenges are met with understanding and support. Examples of this are normalizing sick days for mental health and speaking openly about their own mental health challenges. 

Second, it’s important to design training that works for a company’s employee demographic and industry. If a workforce is primarily male, it’s important to know that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for men under 50 in Canada. Mental health markers may differ depending on age, culture and gender, and it is important to address these nuances.

Finally, training alone isn’t enough—it has to be part of a strategy that includes comprehensive enterprise-wide mental health education, a meaningful mental health allowance and a team committed to communicating medical benefits and mental health initiatives. When working with a limited budget, avoid novelty offerings and focus on investments that will maximize impact. There is no stand-alone solution; there needs to be a comprehensive approach.

Since prioritizing mental health and introducing mandatory training, we’ve witnessed positive changes, including increased use of professional mental health benefits and employees self-reporting mental health days, demonstrating that our shift in culture from “sick days” to “health days” is having the intended impact.

The comfort levels we see in team members openly discussing mental health issues also reflects efforts to reduce stigma. After receiving training, our managers reported feeling empowered and significantly more confident in initiating mental health conversations with team members.

Canada’s mental health crisis is too severe to ignore. One in two Canadians will face a mental health challenge in their life, and workplaces have a duty to acknowledge this and act.

Manager training is a vital step, but it cannot stand alone. There must be increased government spending on mental health resources and organizations must ensure their own policies provide requisite mental health coverage.

Neglecting to train managers adequately undermines their ability to support their teams and fails our collective duty to create psychologically safe work environments. No matter the size or the budget, every workplace should implement mandatory mental health training for their managers. This is not an issue that we can wait for government mandates: It’s a crisis that demands immediate and proactive action.

Kirsten I’Anson is vice-president of people and culture at Community Savings Credit Union.