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There’s an urgent need to train managers in workplace mental health

What they don’t teach you in your MBA.

Workplace managers often have it tough. Without the right training, they might feel they’re lacking the leadership skills required for their role, and what do they do if they sense that one of their staff is experiencing a mental health issue?

When stresses in a workplace environment start to impact on a person’s ability to function in their role, their manager will almost always be expected to address the problem, and without a good understanding of the psychology underlying their staff member’s condition, it can be a complex and high-stakes situation to deal with. 

“Supporting workers with mental illness is increasingly becoming a job demand that managers are facing, but often feel ill-prepared for,” said Dr Sarah Dawkins from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania.

It can be quite a stressful demand, and sometimes they have to navigate it on their own. They’re also concerned about how best to help their staff - they don’t want to upset the situation, or do more harm, however well-intended their actions might be.

As co-leader of the University’s Work Health and Wellbeing Network, Dr Dawkins is collaborating with managers and workplaces around Australia to devise a training model that not only ensures workers with mental health issues are supported, but tries to prevent these issues from developing in the first place. 

The training involves half-day workshops for managers and follow-up sessions, plus separate programs for HR teams, to establish policies and procedures for workplace mental health. 

“We can’t just look to managers, we need the organisation to have the proper procedures in place,” said Dr Dawkins.

You need to know the signs

What’s becoming clear through Dr Dawkins’ research is how behaviour in the workplace is far more complex than simply how a staff member performs - managers need to be able to identify when certain behaviours are pointing at underlying issues that could go beyond the basics like productivity and efficiency. 

One of the key lessons of the management training sessions Dr Dawkins is now trialling is how to identify the signs of a developing mental health issue, and understanding that stressful deadlines aren’t the only source of anxiety for employees. 

For example, Dr Dawkins has been examining a concept known as psychological ownership, where a staff member feels extremely committed to their role. 

“People with psychological ownership display more commitment, creativity, and they generally perform better, but we wanted to review the literature to see if there is a dark side of this ownership as well,” she explains. 

“We found that if you feel like you have too much ownership, you may be less likely to collaborate, become more territorial, and that impacts back on you. There are gaps in our understanding of psychological ownership, particularly in relation to wellbeing.” 

“It’s good up until a certain point, and then it can become a negative,” she said.

Australia-wide support

In October 2016, Dr Dawkins worked with the Work Health and Wellbeing Network to bring together University of Tasmania researchers and educators with national and international collaborators to identify a set of nine priorities (PDF 1.2 MB) for the effective promotion and management of employee wellbeing. 

Those priorities include developing knowledge, skills and resources in psychological health and safety at all levels; developing emotional and social intelligence in leaders and managers; and implementing flexible work practices to accommodate individual needs. 

She’s also part of a team that set up an online module specifically for PhD supervisors to ensure candidates with developing or existing mental health issues are supported. 

It’s early days yet, but Dr Dawkins said the feedback from the training program so far is already revealing the positive impact of better education and procedures around mental health. 

And she expects to see more and more interest around Australia as we come to recognise psychological wellbeing in the workplace as being just as important to safeguard as physical safety. 

“The managers found it really helpful to start a conversation about how they’d approach mental health as an organisation. Everyone was on the same page for where to go for more help,” she said. 

It’s about making mental health a priority just like physical health and safety. It’s really important for productive and healthy workplaces.