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Want to reduce sick days? Offer mental health training, researchers say

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Employee training programs focused on basic ways to address common mental health concerns in the workplace can reduce workers’ stigmatic beliefs and absenteeism, according to a study published July 10 in BMC Public Health.

Among a group of staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in the United Kingdom, this type of program led to a 22% drop in recorded sick days. Since the program is aimed at common mental health problems and isn’t specialized to a particular workforce, it could be used across various organizations and industries worldwide, researchers said.

“Mental health problems are often hidden and therefore get worse over time without effective intervention,” Nicola Gray, the lead researcher from Swansea University’s School of Psychology, said in a statement.

“Prevail [the program] teaches people evidence-based psychological techniques for the treatment and management of these conditions,” she said. “It also aims to reduce stigma by providing evidence that these problems are common and can happen to anyone.”

Managers often lack the tools to address employees’ mental health needs, particularly in recent years as burnout and stress increase, according to a recent WTW report. Training programs that focus on mental health sensitivity could help leaders identify staff who may be struggling and use tools to collaborate on solutions.

Gray and her colleagues placed a priority on improving common conditions, including depression, anxiety, and distress caused by bereavement, divorce, debt, housing problems and friendship issues.

In the study, DVLA staff and managers were split into two groups — one that took part in the training sessions and one that didn’t. The group that participated in the training program learned psychological techniques and coping mechanisms to handle these common conditions, as well as basic mental health literacy.

After the study, the group that received the training had fewer sick days and had reduced mental health stigma. However, the group that didn’t participate in the training had an increase in sick days.

Instead of identifying staff who may need help with mental health concerns, the Prevail program was created to provide training to all employees so they can help themselves and colleagues, friends or family. 

DVLA Head of HR Helen Davies said in a statement about the study that development of and investment in the Prevail program has been worthwhile.

“Many staff have commented on how Prevail has helped them overcome their mental health difficulties, and even helped them to help other people by teaching them the techniques they have learned.”

The call for mental health training — as well as mental health benefits — will likely grow stronger in coming years, especially among younger workers. In a survey of recent college graduates, nearly all said employers should offer mental and emotional health benefits, and more than a third said they’re prioritizing companies that do so during their job search.

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