Until relatively recently, companies that focused meaningfully on their employees’ mental health were few and far between. Employees who struggled with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other mental health issues were largely expected to manage those issues outside of work or face the possibility of being seen as not “cut out” for the job.
As attitudes toward mental health have changed in recent years and the stigmatization of such issues has receded, many companies are looking more carefully at their employees’ mental health, recognizing the role they can play in helping them deal with those issues. They recognize that mental health has a direct impact on workers’ performance, productivity, and longevity.
The Impact of COVID-19
In addition to the gradual shift toward a more compassionate view of employee mental health, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has also served as a catalyst to bring greater attention to employee mental health. Uncertainty over job security, the direct health impacts of the pandemic on employees and their loved ones, and the isolation caused by remote work have made mental health an extremely relevant focus for organizations around the country and the globe.
“I can’t stress enough how important mental health is in the workplace, and I think my business is a prime example of how to do it right,” says Nelson Sherwin, manager of PEO Companies. “We have a big team, which means a lot of resources need to go toward ensuring every employee feels emotionally supported and engaged in the remote workplace. As a manager and as someone who works directly with our HR department on a daily basis, I am so proud that we’ve been able to establish employee support groups and maximize our communication efforts with employees who may be struggling.”
Sherwin acknowledges that the pandemic has led to uncertainty about what the future of the workplace will look like but that his company plans to continue remote work for the foreseeable future. “For this reason, I have begun to take time out of my day to organize Zoom calls with my team in order to ensure that everyone is happy and healthy,” he says. “And if someone needs additional support, we’ve got the resources to help them get through it.”
Having Open Discussions While Maintaining Privacy
One of the biggest challenges with addressing mental health in any organization is the fact that mental health issues have been stigmatized for years. Having open discussions about mental health challenges can help address this stigmatization, but companies also need to ensure they’re respecting their employees’ privacy.
“Ensure that your HR and management team knows how to keep mental health information private, while also communicating and encouraging their team to be open with them regarding mental health concerns,” says Rebecca Cafiero, an international Forbes Business Strategist, a TEDx Speaker, and an author. “Above all, make sure that your team feels cared for, understood and positive about their place in the organization,” she advises.
Modeling Desirable Behaviors and Attitudes at the Top
As with any aspect of company culture, organizations will have greater success with encouraging beneficial mental health practices if leadership is behind the effort. “If the leaders don’t embrace mental health practices, it will be more difficult to integrate with the team,” says Cafiero. “It all starts at the top, so it’s crucial the organizational leaders are demonstrating the directives, not just signing off on them.”
Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD, medical science liaison at Orexo, echoes this point. “I always encourage employers to go beyond the basics,” she says. “For example, while webinars about mental health can be helpful and informative, they can also be impersonal. Really try and dig in and aim to promote a culture that encourages the expression of feelings of all kinds–stress, worry, joy, exhaustion–starting from the top down.”
For example, Utter suggests, encourage leaders to make their one-on-ones “less transactional and more meaningful by having them pause to ask about how the other person is feeling.” Ensure they’re ready to listen, act, and provide support as needed. “People leaders should also be ready to lead by example by prioritizing their own mental health,” Utter adds. “Strive to be open about how you’re feeling and create a space where people can feel comfortable to do the same. Leaders should make a point to schedule time off–and really take it. Aim to avoid sending late-night or weekend emails unless needed. This can help employees of all levels to strike that healthy balance between work and life.”
A significant contributor to anxiety in the workplace is a lack of information. With many companies being negatively impacted by the pandemic and some having to lay off workers, it’s understandable that employees would be apprehensive about what the future might hold. It might seem counterintuitive at first to argue that being transparent and open with employees about potential negative changes in the company’s future would help reduce anxiety. But fear of the unknown is often more difficult to deal with than knowledge of potential challenges. Having such knowledge provides a greater sense of control and agency, and people often assume the worst when they don’t have all the facts. Companies should strive to be as transparent as possible with their teams and provide the support they may need to cope with bad news.
Mental health issues have long been stigmatized both in society as a whole and in the workplace in particular. Many employers have historically viewed employees struggling with mental health as simply not cut out for the job, while others have sought to avoid these issues entirely. But mental health challenges are far more common than once believed, and employers have an incentive to ensure their employees are mentally healthy and getting the resources they need to remain productive members of the team. Moreover, diagnosed mental health conditions are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), meaning employers have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations.
The past several months have been challenging for many. What steps are you taking to help your employees manage their mental health?