Black Dog Institute training managers to understand mental health in the workplace

Researchers at the Black Dog Institute and UNSW Sydney recently conducted a study into the effects of a four-hour mental health-training program delivered to managers from Fire & Rescue NSW. 

This first of a kind study in Australia, showed that training managers about mental health can have a direct effect in improving occupational outcomes for employees, and its also the first time a dollar figure on the value of manager mental health training has been able to be calculated. 

In an exclusive interview with, associate professor Samuel Harvey, who leads the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at Black Dog Institute, discusses the importance of training managers to understand mental health and how important it is for people to feel they have support from management. 

OHS: Why is it important to train managers to understand mental health and wellbeing?

SH: Mental health is now the leading cause of long terms sickness absence in most developed countries. Managers can play a key role in helping employees in the workplace who are suffering from mental health problems. Mangers with an understanding of mental health and wellbeing can better recognise signs that a worker is struggling and can intervene earlier to reduce the risk of mental illness or long-term disability developing. Managers also often have the authority to implement adjustments to working conditions, which can improve outcomes for the affected individual as well as the whole team.

OHS: What industries are keen to embrace the training and education programs?

SH: A wide variety of industries have shown an interest in workplace training and education programs for managers. Most managers know that mental health is a problem amongst some of their workers, but don’t feel as confident discussing it as they would other physical health problems. The Black Dog Institute run a version of the RESPECT manager training for all types of workplaces, and it has become their most popular program. Around half of the clients are from the government sector and the other half is from non-government, ranging from childcare centres and small not-for-profits to big corporations (e.g. banking, aviation, insurance).

OHS: Is workplace wellbeing a topic that has recently had more publicity and why?

SH: It’s true that workplace wellbeing has started to become a topic that everyone is talking about over the last few years. One of the main reasons for this is that mental illness has become the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term disability across developed countries. According to a recent OECD report, mental health issues cost the Australian economy $28.6 billion per year, and this figure is doubled when productivity loss and sickness absence are factored into the equation. 

OHS: Is there still stigma attached to mental health in the workplace or are we moving towards a more empathetic understanding?

SH: Organisations like the Black Dog institute and beyoundblue have done an amazing job in Australia in increasing the general populations’ understanding and awareness of mental health problems.  However, if with all this work, mental illness is still very stigmatized.  Many people suffering from symptoms still feel ashamed or worried about asking for help, which is such a shame as we now have really effective treatments that are available. 

OHS: How important is it for people to feel that they have support from management and what difference can this make?

SH: Having a supportive manager and work environment can reduce mental ill health and aid in recovery. Studies conducted by other research teams have shown that early and regular contact from managers during a sickness absence episode is associated with a more rapid return to work for employees with mental health problems. This communication needs to be supportive and empathetic, with the manager actively listening to how the worker wants to be helped. Managers should focus on offering practical advice around things like workplace adjustments, keeping active and seeking professional help, rather than trying to be lay counsellors.


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