Let’s Talk: Using Motivational Interviewing to Strengthen the Behavioral Health Workforce


As the mental health and substance use workforce grapples with increasing stress, burnout and high turnover rates, motivational interviewing (MI) offers a beacon of hope. Most commonly known as an approach to help clients who are ambivalent about health behavior change, more and more evidence is emerging to support the idea that MI can just as readily be used in a parallel process to explore growth and change within organizations.

Understanding Motivational Interviewing

MI is an evidence-based way of talking with people about change and growth to strengthen their own motivation and commitment. To date, there are more than 2,000 published controlled trials and more than 200 meta-analyses and systematic reviews that evaluate the method. It is taught and practiced in at least 75 languages with applications in fields such as addiction, education, public health, social work and management.

Rather than being prescriptive or imposing change, MI fosters an interpersonal process of promoting partnership and shared goals, listening with intention to understand and respect around the human need for autonomy. MI-trained practitioners help patients explore their motivation for change, align treatment plans with values and foster self-efficacy. This approach leads to more meaningful and impactful relationships that result in improved patient outcomes. This collaborative approach to helping clients, has proved to be equally advantageous when working towards the wellbeing of entire teams and organizations.

Strengthening the Workforce

Investing in MI training is about enhancing individual skills and weaving these skills into the organization’s fabric, making them integral to every interaction and experience. It’s about moving from merely applying MI to embodying it at every level of interaction. Staff trained in MI learn to shift their focus from “fixing” to asking open-ended questions with empathy and curiosity.  For example:

  • From your perspective, what are some ways you see us moving forward?
  • What would bring you one step closer to where you might want to be?
  • How can I help make a constructive space to explore this?

Using this approach, motivational interviewing becomes a way for organizations to explore some of their most prominent and pressing workforce challenges impacting stress and burnout. Rather than viewing staff as resistant to change and growth, the MI approach leads with empathy and curiosity. Employee engagement and retention is improved when staff feel understood, trust is enhanced and respect is mutual. Organizational belonging is affirmed when we foster more constructive dialogues that include diverse ideas and experiences, and the path to resolving ambivalence becomes clearer when MI is used to align workplace values with behaviors.

Training in motivational interviewing includes learning how to recognize and respond to various stages of readiness. A workforce that is flexible and adaptable optimizes internal dynamics and overall organizational performance, especially during periods of organizational change.  

Change itself rarely follows a straight line. Meeting employees where they are, in various stages of readiness, means aligning our use of MI accordingly. For example:

  • Using reflections or listening statements with an employee who is contemplating the benefits and drawbacks of a change.
  • Asking permission before giving guidance to an employee preparing for a process change.
  • Encouraging a colleague to name steps they could take if they want to test a change.

A Catalyst for Quality

Implementing MI training at an organizational level is more than a clinical investment; it’s a commitment to creating a supportive, engaging and high-quality work environment. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing offers motivational interviewing trainings and consultation to foster organizational cultures that prioritize listening over talking, collaboration over confrontation and understanding over reflexive fixing.

As organizations strive to address the workforce crisis, embedding MI into the foundational framework could be a game changer. Empowering people as catalysts of change can set the stage for a revitalized workforce. With MI as their beacon, organizations can chart a new course that ignites a wave of positive change, fosters a healthier, more fulfilled workforce and ultimately redefines the landscape of behavioral health services. The power of MI is not merely to reform; it is to revolutionize for a better, brighter future.


Alexandra Plante
Senior Advisor, Substance Use Disorder in the Strategy and Growth Office
National Council for Mental Wellbeing
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Pam Pietruszewski, MA
Senior Advisor
National Council for Mental Wellbeing
See bio