By Andrew Hobbs
GIVING basic mental health training to managers brought back a return on investment of $9.98 to the dollar in a recent study completed by the University of NSW and the Black Dog Institute, an organisation dedicated to understanding, preventing and treating mental illness.
Undertaken by managers from Fire & Rescue NSW, the study is the first to show that training managers about mental health can have a direct effect in improving occupational outcomes for employees.
Half of a group of 88 managers, responsible for close to 4,000 employees, were given a four-hour mental health training session developed by the Black Dog Institute at the start of the program.
Researchers found the amount of work-related sick leave taken by employees whose managers had received the training had decreased by 18% when they and their employees were re-assessed six months later.
This equated to a reduction of 6.45 hours sick leave per employee over six months. It was estimated that the money saved in increased productivity and not having to cover absent staff (and its associated costs) – was equal to roughly $10 per employee.
During the same period, work-related sick leave in the second (control) group increased by 10%.
Associate Professor Samuel Harvey, who leads the Workplace Mental Health research program at the Black Dog Institute, told Workplace Bulletin that the trained managers had become more confident in identifying mental health issues in their employees.
“There seemed to be a change in their behaviour. If a staff member had gone off sick with a mental health problem, those that had got the training were much more likely to have made early contact with them,” he said.
This manager training is now available as a half-day course through the Black Dog Institute and follows the basis of the acronym RESPECT.
Regular contact is essential
Managers should maintain an appropriate level of regular contact with an employee on sick leave. Try to avoid putting pressure on the employee – try to ensure that all communication with the employee comes from a position of care and concern.
Earlier the better
In the days after a critical incident, it is important to initiate a conversation early. Preparing for the meeting helps. Gather the facts before you start the conversation and think about what you want to achieve – to touch base, or to plan a return to work? Also, think about where and when you are planning to have the conversation.
Supportive and empathetic
If a worker has called in sick, they may be expecting a call – and may also be feeling defensive. Remember to be empathetic and supportive. If it helps, write a possible opening for the conversation.
Practical help, not psychotherapy
Listen actively, and listen more than you talk. Be clear about the concerns you have and clarify statements as you go along – but remember that your job is to offer practical help, not therapy.
Think of the approach you would take if an employee had a physical illness – the same principles apply here. Encourage them to seek out support and resources from a professional who could help them manage their condition.
Consider return to work options
Without putting pressure on the employee, try to gauge how they feel about returning to work. Be honest about what adjustments can be made and what is out of your control – and focus on their capacity to work rather than any limitations.
Tell them the door is always open – arrange next contact
If the employee is already on leave, try to agree on the frequency of contact and who they would prefer to be their main contact – try to get in touch at least once every two weeks.
As always, confidence is key
Noting that Fire & Rescue personnel were considered a high-risk group for mental illnesses because of the traumatic circumstances they were regularly exposed to, Mr Harvey said building confidence was the key to managers successfully addressing the issue early.
“There were a lot of managers that we spoke to in the focus groups while we were developing this training who said they understood that mental health was an issue. They often had a sense of which employee of theirs was struggling, but what they lacked were the skills required to initiate that conversation,” he said.
“The most important thing for managers is to understand the potential they have to really help with people’s recovery from mental illness if they get this right. They need to be given the skills and confidence to be able to have those conversations,” Mr Harvey concluded.