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Three Tips for Improving Mental Health in the Workplace

Thanks to the Internet, smartphones and other connected devices we are living in a 24/7 world where we are “always on.” While this technology has enriched our lives in many ways (I know that I love being able to FaceTime my kids from anywhere in the world), it’s become increasingly clear that it also creates behaviors that can have a negative effect on our mental health. In the new world of work, the office is no longer defined by real estate and you can no longer end your work day simply by walking out the front door. 

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, a good time to reflect on mental health and how it affects us all, directly and indirectly. Millions of people in the U.S. live with a mental illness, yet there is still a stigma associated with asking for help. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, but only 43% of people received treatment in 2018. It’s unacceptable that less than half of those suffering are treated, and it’s a problem that we can all play a role in addressing. 

And while it may be easy (or at least easier) to talk about mental health in our personal, social and family lives, it continues to be more difficult to discuss openly in the workplace. Yet the impact of mental health on both employees and employers is tremendous and terrifying. Employees are struggling to find harmony in their work lives and their personal lives — they are unable to unplug and recharge, and often don’t know who to turn to for support. Many continue to be afraid to discuss their mental health with co-workers and managers for fear of stigmatization or even reprisal, leaving 85% of employees’ mental health conditions undiagnosed or untreated. For employers, mental health conditions cost more than $100 billion and 217 million lost workdays each year. Mental health is no longer a human resources issue it is a business issue!

To be clear, the causes of mental illnesses are obviously complex and go far beyond just our technology habits and work behaviors. But, as an HR leader, I’ve seen firsthand how critical it is that business leaders and organizations foster psychologically safe and supportive work environments and play an active role in opening up the conversation and supporting positive mental health in the workplace. We are all responsible for creating a culture that supports positive mental health — both inside and outside of the workplace.

While it may feel like a daunting task, now is the time to take steps to make your organization more psychologically safe for all employees. Here are four ways to get started:

Make sure your leaders are part of the solution

Here is the reality, many employees struggling with their mental health are still coming to work everyday because they prefer to struggle through their day rather than address their issues with their manager, their peers, or even HR out of a fear of being stigmatized. These employees have difficulty concentrating, communicating and can get irritable sometimes with customers and colleagues. The data tells us that almost 80% of managers aren’t equipped to identify early warning signs of stress or anxiety in their employees and have not been trained to have these conversations. In other words, you have employees struggling in silence, too afraid to raise the issue, and unprepared managers who are hoping that no one does.

Managers and leaders, are the best resources for employees dealing with stress, anxiety or depression in the workplace and are critical in creating a psychologically safe environment for employees.  Managers play a significant role in safeguarding the mental health of their teams, so it’s critical that they receive education and substantial training to ensure that they can handle critical situations, teaching them how to engage in supportive conversations with their team members and to understand when they should escalate to a mental health professional.

In order to truly leverage the power of the manager/employee trusted relationship – the conversation must be genuine, and must be a two-way dialogue. Leaders must be willing to share their own personal experiences with mental health rather than how someone else’s mental health affected them. We need to be vulnerable and lead by example, taking time for self-care and sharing our own personal experiences, strategies and struggles with mental health. In order to make real change in our workplaces, we must talk about mental health at all levels and continue to encourage our executives to take the lead — because when they do, it makes all the difference! 

Recognize that one size does not fit all

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to mental health. What works for one employee may not work for another, and both managers and HR teams need to be trained to handle mental health issues with a personalized approach. Often, the default response to an employee who is ill is to offer them time off so they can get well. While well intentioned, work is often a source of connection for our employees, and provide a sense of purpose. Personal leave can be lonely, and can make employees who are recovering from mental illness feel disconnected from their work, and from their work-based social environment. Sometimes reducing or modifying work hours or role responsibilities, or actively connecting employees with the right resources may be a better response. The point is that managers, HR  and business leaders need to take time to understand the unique needs of employees — we shouldn’t automatically push employees out on leave.  

While taking a full leave in some situations is the best and most appropriate response, how employees are treated while out on leave will impact their timeline and likelihood of returning to work. When employees do go out on leave, an appropriate communication plan should be established between the employee and their leader. The plan should allow the employee the time and space that they need to get well, while allowing them to remain as connected to their work life as much as they wish to be. 

Offer easy and effective access to care

It’s hard enough for employees to acknowledge needing help with their illness. Finding the right care shouldn’t make it harder. In a recent survey League conducted with Harvard Business Review, 58% of respondents reported that their employees are unaware of the company-provided health benefits to which they are entitled. This shouldn’t be the case broadly, and especially for something as important as mental health. We need to help employees avoid pain points in their search for aid by investing in employee health benefits that support employees in living a healthy lifestyle and making choices that promote good health. 

Start by making mental health part of your benefits onboarding process, with specific resources and direction on how to access them. One of the amazing services that League offers to our clients is the Mental Health Concierge, where employees can live chat with a real health professional when and where they’re facing a health issue — any time they need. That ease of access is critical when it comes to mental health. When you’re having an anxiety attack or in the midst of depression, it’s difficult to know who to turn to. Often times, you don’t even know where to start. 

Invest in year-round preventative care

Many company-sponsored health insurance programs are focussed on providing insurance for employees who are ill rather than focussing on promoting health. The Centre for Disease Control estimates that better preventative care could reduce hospitalizations from mental illness or disorder by 30%. Employers, regardless of size or industry, should be investing in employee health benefits that support employees living a healthy lifestyle and making choices that promote good health both physical and psychological. So, stop spending corporate dollars on  employee illness and begin investing in employee preventative health care. 

In addition to making mental health professionals easily accessible to your employees, consider offering mental health days like you do sick days, providing subscriptions to meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace, and Inkblot, and encouraging proper nutrition, sleep and exercise programs. These are important steps for ensuring employees feel supported and have the resources they need to manage stress and prevent illness. 

While this week is an important time for discussion and action, mental health is not a one-time fix or something we can ignore the rest of the year. We must bring the conversation about mental health in the workplace to the forefront and implement wellness programs that help people on their mental health journeys year-round. By bringing mental health out of the shadows, investing in the right resources, encouraging leaders to share their personal experiences and struggles, and taking a more personal approach to dealing with employees who are currently dealing with mental illness, we can create a psychologically safe and healthy environment and improve the overall employee experience. The bottom line is simple: It starts with us.

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