Nearly one in five people in the United States lives with a mental illness, but there is still a strong stigma around discussing mental health at work. The month of May being dedicated as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States helps, but we still have a long way to go in combating the public discourse surrounding the issue, which often deters people from speaking up and seeking help.
People are spending more of their day at the office and staying virtually connected to work after they leave, and companies are facing an employee burnout crisis. Employee turnover, workplace stress, and absenteeism are costing U.S. employers an estimated $300 billion a year.
Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace
Employees are often afraid to show they need assistance because they feel they’re admitting weakness or an inability to perform well in their role, ultimately putting their livelihood in jeopardy.
Employers are also afraid of “overstepping.’’ They worry that by encouraging employees to speak up, they open the floodgates to problems they may not be equipped to handle. However, as Mettie Spiess, founder of A World Without Suicide, explains, no one would think twice about helping someone who was choking or downing. In that situation, the typical impulse is to help, not pause to evaluate qualifications or credentials. People with a mental illness are still suffering; just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean their life isn’t in danger.
So, what can a company do? Employers can be proactive by first starting the conversation about mental health to cultivate a culture that greatly destigmatizes mental illness within their organization. By creating a positive company culture with policies that outline how to handle critical situations and offer resources to deal with stress proactively, employers create a safe environment for employees.
Employers can also implement continuous management and leadership training focused on mindfulness, resilience, and stress management. This type of training will encourage both managers and peers to learn how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness, what to say, and how to direct colleagues to resources that can help.
Sadly, employee burnout continues to grow, as 50% of workers have felt or currently feel burnt out in their career, but many don’t feel comfortable asking for a break and, instead, hide how they feel. When employees come to work feeling overstressed or unwell, they’re often distracted and not able to perform to the best of their ability. It’s crucial for employees to feel comfortable asking for what they need, like occasionally working from home or flex time to practice self-care. Management can lead the way in establishing a safe work environment for employees and encourage flexibility in the workplace.
Holistic Health Programs + Tech to the Rescue
Traditional health benefits are not cutting it. Innovative companies are adjusting their benefits to appeal to a diverse workforce and accommodate employees at all stages of their lives by expanding beyond traditional health care into the world of holistic wellness or well-being. Gallup refers to “well-being” as our physical, financial, emotional, community, and career health (or feeling connected to a sense of purpose). Our mental health impacts our ability to thrive in all of these areas, as well as cope with the challenges we’re faced with related to all aspects of well-being. Supporting employees in all areas of well-being, along with creating an environment that promotes total well-being, has a huge impact on mental health.
Savvy companies are focusing on offering programs and benefits that pertain to what employees really want and value. This strategy bleeds over into their wellness programs. For example, Millennials, now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, grew up using technology, which is driving employers to rethink how they address mental health at work. In an effort to lower the stigma around the topic of mental health, companies are providing apps and other digital tools specifically for the younger workforce.
According to Total Brain, a technology-based solution for addressing mental health in the workplace, on any given day, we’re all on the spectrum. While most people think of disorders and diagnoses when it comes to mental health, we are all striving to show up as the best version of ourselves from an emotional standpoint, as well as a cognitive function perspective. Digitalizing mental health allows employers to meet people where they are and make the information accessible in a way that feels more private and less intimidating. There are a variety of digital tools on the market to promote mental health—from mindfulness and meditation apps to medication trackers and even clinical assessment tools—all available on your smartphone.
Unsurprisingly, today’s always-on, tech-driven culture leads to a severely unbalanced work and personal life. As workers’ personal and professional lives continue to merge, employers will have to address mental health in their workforce and lower the associated stigmas. Employers don’t have a choice. Mental health is a topic organizations need to embrace and provide solutions for—whether it be in a more traditional manner or by adopting new, holistic methods—before they lose current and prospective employees to companies that do.
Shira Wilensky is the National Practice Leader of Health & Wellbeing at OneDigital.