Working with a mental illness is challenging, and not uncommon. In fact, one in five of us will experience a clinical episode of depression at some point in our life.

For many of us, work can be an important part of coping and recovery, but for managers and supervisors, the fear of having to assist employees who are dealing with mental illness can be overwhelming.

That’s why managers need the right training to know how to support employees with mental illnesses. And if they’re successful, it can have a big effect on the entire workplace.

“We knew from our research that there was a lot of trepidation around this issue,” said Dr Megan Woods from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

People didn’t know how to handle it, they thought it was going to be challenging, and they hoped against hope that it didn’t turn up on their doorstop. But once we completed the exercise, a lot of the managers we spoke to said that while there were really challenging parts to it, there were some really great parts, too.

Dr Woods is an expert in qualitative research methods, and she works in a team with Dr Sarah Dawkins from the University of Tasmania and Dr Angela Martin, an Adjunct Professor at the University, to investigate mental health in the workplace.

As part of a 2014 study on managing employees with mental health issues, the researchers interviewed line managers and front-line supervisors about their experiences interacting with employees who were living with depression or burn-out.

And they uncovered some unexpected and significant benefits for those who were able to provide support.

Some managers said, ‘what I learned is that I’m prepared to handle things that other people weren’t’.

“Other managers in the organisation didn’t want a bar of the situation, and I was the one who stepped up and got involved. That taught me that I’m prepared to tackle things that other people aren’t, and that I have skills I didn’t even know I had.”

Through in-depth interviews, Dr Woods discovered that while managers had to watch their employees “go through hell” while dealing with their mental illnesses, they also had the opportunity to see them recover and respond to help.

And this process benefited other members of the workplace, too.

“They said, ‘we saw the team around them dig in and support them, and we saw that flow through to other members of the team who saw how caring and warm the people around them were,’” said Dr Woods.

“They thought, ‘I’ve just seen them rally around this one person, and now I feel more confident that if it were me who needed help in the future, they’d rally around me.’”

As important as these findings are, Dr Woods is just getting started.

“What we realised is that this is everywhere,” she said.

She’s currently working with a local mental health research group to apply what she’s learned to other high-stress scenarios, including residential aged care facilities and PhD candidacy.

“We’re now focussed on the idea that the more we can do to help people in managerial roles understand how to engage with employee mental health, the more we’ll be helping them provide support for their employee’s recovery. This will enable them to be more productive, and have a more positive experience where they work,” she said.

There’s important research to do here, and it can have a huge impact not just on one person’s life, but on all those around them. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big deal to achieve that.

Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.

Find out more about studying Business and Economics here.

About Dr Megan Woods

Dr Woods' research interests in computer-assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDA) aligns with the University's strategic theme of Data, Knowledge and Decisions. Her research interest in CAQDA includes understanding how the use of CAQDA programs such as N-Vivo influence research processes and research outcomes and is focused on helping researchers make more informed decisions about whether and how to use such tools to enhance their research productivity and value. Dr Woods' research into the methodological applications of CAQDA programs and ways in which their use influences research processes informs her research, teaching and community service for the University of Tasmania. She has taught over 200 University researchers to use such programs and helped organisations such as Regional Development Australia, Council on the Ageing and the Tasmanian Council of Social Service to use N-Vivo to enhance their community consultation research. She is currently researching current and best practices in using CAQDA programs and reporting their usage.

View Dr Megan Woods's full researcher profile