Working to Improve Mental Health at Work

With so much public discussion about mental health and specific concerns such as depression and suicide, it is no surprise that employers are becoming a source of support and assistance to those facing such issues. It’s a natural fit, says the Olson Group, an employee benefits consulting firm.

“The more we learn about mental health,” they say, “the more we are finding out how much it impacts an individual’s total health and their workplace effectiveness.”

It’s a Costly Problem

People who are having trouble coping, for whatever reason, typically keep their problems to themselves. Despite the increased public conversation about mental health, the stigma is still real. People fear what others will think of them and that they may lose their job if they reveal their condition to co-workers or managers. They are ashamed.

This, of course, is the fundamental problem. People who have a physical health problem don’t feel shame, it’s a natural part of life for virtually everyone, at least now and then. Stress and anxiety affect virtually everyone at some point, too. And, just like physical illness, when employees suffer from stress, depression or other mental health issues, it affects their demeanor and productivity at work.

And that becomes a financial issue for employers.

An internal study conducted by SAP revealed that employees suffering from depression were absent an average of 40 days. While the company offers both short- and long-term disability benefits, they say that simply taking time off doesn’t change anything. Without overt assistance to address their depression, the employee is back at square one when they return to work.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says employers not only have an opportunity to change this climate of fear within the workplace, they should, because about 85% of employee mental health conditions are neither diagnosed nor treated. On the other hand, they say, investing in mental health discussion and treatment offers myriad benefits. Among them:

  • Breaking the mental illness stigma by creating a culture of acceptance
  • Reducing feelings of social isolation by helping individuals feel more included
  • Enabling people to become happier, more confident and more productive
  • Reducing turnover
  • Boosting company value to potential new hires as a caring workplace

Companies Are Going Proactive When It Comes to Mental Health

The World Health Organization says having a job is good for one’s mental health, but all too often it’s the workplace itself that adds to a person’s stress. The WHO says that, globally, depression and anxiety cost employers $1 trillion USD in lost productivity. However, for every $1 spent on improved recognition and treatment of mental disorders, employers see a $4 return in better employee health and productivity.

One of their recommended “cures” for this widespread workplace problem? A more supportive environment for employees. Greater team cohesion and social support can reduce turnover and help improve workers’ lives once they head home to their families. The WHO suggests employers consider:

  • How they can adapt their workplace to promote better mental health for all employees, by making a real effort to understand individual employee issues
  • Adopting other company’s successful efforts as best practices
  • Communicating to employees where they can find additional support or assistance

There are two key issues at stake, say employers who are already taking steps to address mental health concerns within their workforce. First, there is the cultural shift required to “mainstream” mental health discussion and acceptance. Companies are encouraging employees to talk openly about the issue in general and, even more effectively, encouraging individuals to talk openly about their own problems.

As one SAP employee put it, “Being open about my suffering was the hardest thing I’ve done, but I am not afraid of who I am anymore. Depression isn’t something to be ashamed of.”

SAP offers a two-day immersive program in mindfulness. The fact that 9,000 employees have joined the waiting list testifies to the perceived relevance and need for this sort of program. SAP encourages employees to tell their personal stories of coping with and overcoming mental health challenges via video. The videos are posted for all to see on the company intranet. SAP also promotes individual self-assessment among employees.

Microsoft invites employees to share their stories, too, via video, podcast and in person. This cathartic, educational process started at the top, says the company’s senior director of global health and wellness. Sonja Kellen explains that “many of our leaders stepped up and started telling their stories, their personal struggles or ones they’ve witnessed. And it has naturally become pervasive in our culture.”

But Microsoft doesn’t stop at story-telling. They have coupled movies about suicide and anxiety with follow-up audience conversation, assisted by a counselor. The company also offers “mental health breaks” as part of their benefits package.

Benefits Can and Should Address Mental Health

Your company’s roster of employee benefits can be an effective tool that tips the scale for employees, helping to give them the courage and the means to overcome mental health challenges. Some of these benefits are obvious – health insurance, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and paid time off, for example.

However, the Olson Group suggests there are less obvious benefits that can help employees handle stress better as well as alleviate underlying sources of stress:

  • Leadership Training. Managers need to learn that it’s OK to talk about mental illness with their employees, and they need to learn how to spot symptoms that someone is in distress.
  • Mobile Apps. New technology is now available to help both employees and employers improve mental health within the workplace. These apps variously enable companies to gather data on employee stress and its effects, help train managers to spot and assist with problems, give workers access to educational materials, link to mindfulness programs or even therapy. Unmind, MoodKit and Happify are just three examples.The nice thing about these apps, says NAMI, is that they focus on preventative care and can be used by employees whenever and wherever they feel most comfortable. That makes them more likely to be used.
  • Resiliency Training and Stress Management Programs. Teaching employees how to reduce stress and new, positive techniques to cope with the vicissitudes of life can improve everyone’s well-being.
  • Parental Leave. A new baby is a major stressor. FMLA allows unpaid time off, but paid parental leave allows new moms and dads to take the time off without added worries about their finances. Along the same line, benefits that provide or help cover cost of childcare can relieve considerable parental stress.
  • Financial Literacy Education. For many people, poor money management skills lead to financial programs that can feel overwhelmingly stressful.
  • Flexible Schedules. Simply allowing workers to vary their hours or work from home can relieve tremendous stress caused by daily living needs.
  • Encouraging employees to socialize and providing at-work opportunities such as team-building games and periodic luncheons supports a corporate culture of inclusion, which can lead to greater productivity as well as reduced anxiety.

As long as mental health continues to be stigmatized it will be kept under wraps and continue to erode personal and workplace health. By working to change perceptions and promote assistive programs for employers, companies can reduce health care costs for themselves and their workers. Perhaps most important, though, positive programs can literally change people’s lives.

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