Mental health training is not compliance training—it’s culture-change training. Without accepting attitudes and a supportive workplace culture, learning skills or rules won’t be effective.
Of course, while confidentiality laws such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and crisis management protocols are essential topics for mental health in the workplace, they are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, they’re the bare minimum.
The goal of mental health trainings should be to open conversations about mental health; to normalize its prevalence in the workplace; and to equip people with tools to create a safe, engaged, productive workplace. However, these discussions can be difficult given the persisting stereotypes and misconceptions about individuals living with mental health conditions.
In developing our own workshop offerings as an effective culture-change tool, Mind Share Partners has found five essentials to implementing mental health trainings:
1. Boost culture change with a supporting leadership message.
Studies show employees are reluctant to utilize benefits if they do not perceive their manager or company is openly supporting their use. Coupled with the particularly acute stigma around mental health conditions, employees are unlikely to take advantage of mental health supports without explicit encouragement by managers and the company. A supporting message from leadership goes a long way to eliminating stigma and making support feel authentic.
In an especially impactful case, one of our client company’s CEO and Chief HR Officer each shared their own stories of the personal impact of mental health at an all-staff meeting. The messages were well-received, and employees felt the company’s efforts to support mental health was genuine.
Explicit support doesn’t always have to be a personal share. Whether through an all-staff Slack message, a short mention during a team meeting, or an internal e-mail campaign during Mental Health Awareness Week, company leaders should make intentional, explicit, and consistent efforts to support mental health at work. Culture change starts from the top of the org chart.
2. Create shared definitions to reduce self-stigma.
Despite best intentions, conversations around mental health can imply an idea of “otherness.” This is in large part due to the stigma and self-stigma around mental health conditions. In reality, up to 80 percent of people will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. How do we make discussions about mental health more accessible?
One way is to describe mental health as a spectrum rather than as a black-and-white set of diagnoses. By acknowledging that most people are somewhere between 100 percent healthy in every way and 100 percent completely non-functional, and that people move around the spectrum over the course of their lives, you can show that everyone experiences mental health challenges.
3. Avoid inadvertently creating armchair therapists.
The natural inclination when designing a mental health training is to focus on definitions and diagnoses of mental health conditions. However, we have found that going too deep in these areas can result in creating armchair therapists who might think, “My colleague has been distant and sad, so they must have depression.” But attempting to diagnose others at work is not just inappropriate, it also can violate privacy laws.
When it comes to mental health, our natural tendency to want to understand the “why” can preemptively assign labels and remove real nuances to mental health. A sad colleague could be the result of many things, such as a passing of a loved one or a bad breakup. And while a common symptom of depression is sadness, it can show up in many other ways, such as loss of interest in activities or even as enthusiasm and friendliness if a person is trying to overcompensate for how he or she is feeling.
We have found it more helpful to outline signs of mental distress at work and how to make talking about it OK rather than trying to figure out exactly what condition signs tie to.
4. Teach managers to be both compassionate and compliant.
Even someone who has positive attitudes about mental health might freeze up because they aren’t sure “if they are allowed to say that at work.”
Managers need to know how to navigate the ADA, while being authentic and real. For example, while managers should not create a situation in which someone is pressured to disclose a medical condition, they can always express concern if someone seems to be struggling. And when managers don’t know how to respond, they can always say so in a way that still makes the person feel valued by thanking him or her for sharing and offering a concrete follow-up in a few days.
Equipping and allowing managers to practice the tools to successfully navigate nuanced conversations in trainings creates a culture of trust that will benefit the team far beyond just mental health.
5. “Walk the talk”—don’t offer training in a vacuum.
Finally, talking about supporting mental health without any policies or practices in place can backfire and create distrust toward the company. Companies should have basic procedures in place so folks who want to learn more or who are spurred to action have a place to turn.
At a minimum, companies should have:
- Mental health insurance coverage and an easily accessible resource that explains them
- An HR contact to answer questions about coverage, services, or accommodations
- Emergency protocol for mental health crises
However, the best practices for companies include:
- An Employee Resource Group inclusive of mental health
- Immediate sources for help, such as a mental health chat service, online therapy or coaching resource, or Employee Assistance Program (EAPs on their own, however, are often underused and insufficient)
- Regular and authentic reminder messages of a company’s commitment to mental health support
- Mental health training integrated into new manager training or another regular regimen
By covering these essentials of mental health training, you will be taking concrete steps toward changing the culture of your workplace to support mental health.
Jen Porter Anderson is the Chief Operating Officer and Bernie Wong is a senior associate at Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that is changing the culture of workplace mental health so both employees and organizations can thrive.