By now, there’s little convincing necessary on the fact that mental health is a worthy focus and investment for businesses. Employers are well aware of the impact poor culture and employee morale have on productivity. But to put a fine point on the fact, a study led by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates “depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year.”
The bigger question now is how do they take “mental health” from a trend or singular add-on programs to a core priority? “It’s not enough to simply offer the latest apps or employ euphemisms like “well-being” or “mental fitness.” Employers must connect what they say to what they actually do,” according to the Harvard Business Review.
Josh Bersin calls mental health a “business imperative,” and one that’s here to stay. That said, it’s also important to note that it’s moved out of the realm of just HR and employee benefits to organization-wide initiatives at every level.
The Case Has Already Been Made
The impact of prioritizing employee well being on productivity and overall culture, therefore retention and employee satisfaction, are well studied and known. “[I]t’s clear that the organizations outperforming their peers are those that have cultivated a strong sense of empathy and flexibility, developed new skills to address workforce needs, and extended holistic mental health support to employees.”
MIT Sloan’s research shows that “‘healthy’ organizations outperform their peers in a range of ways. Rates of absenteeism are almost 11 times more likely to be lower, and these employers are more than three times more likely to retain people.” So the subject isn’t new, but the way business are talking about and strategizing around it is evolving.
It’s not hard to argue in support of enabling employees to better cope with demand at work and home, but in recent years the binary view of work-life balance has been replaced with a goal for harmony between the many important areas of individuals’ lives. In this new world, positive mental health means a stronger ability to face the challenges in finding that harmony, overcoming setbacks, and staying agile when change happens, often unexpectedly.
Positive mental health is seen as a basic need for employees, so resources for maintaining mental health are as important as the right technology and tools for doing one’s job. The benefits are proven and clear, so making the case with leadership is less about whether it’s worth it and more about how to do it well in an impactful way.
Choose Your Own Wellness Adventure
How each organization effectively prioritizes its employees’ mental health will be unique to each workforce, but the common denominator is the seriousness with which they face this challenge. In addition to general support, industry- and company-specific risk factors should also be considered. The WHO says, “There are many risk factors for mental health that may be present in the working environment. Most risks relate to interactions between type of work, the organizational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to carry out their work.”
In response to those risk factors and aligning leadership on the priority mental health should have, there are three key considerations for businesses as they look ahead to what this looks like for your workforce.
1. Equip Managers for their Critical Role in Employee Mental Health
This is an all-hands-on-deck job, and managers and supervisors are individuals’ direct connection to resources, day-to-day support, and senior leadership. “Mid-level managers are often the gatekeepers of employee well-being—they determine whether employees can actually utilize the benefits and resources your organization offers. Without their buy-in, these opportunities are moot for many staff.”
Helping people managers support employee well being means much more than encouraging them to be empathetic and asking how their teams are doing. Knowing how to identify and be aware of individuals’ mental states as well as knowing practical ways to offer support while also being aware of company policies and benefits/offerings are not intuitive.
For that reason, official training not only communicates how important mental health is to the business, but also provides the critical education that brings strategy to action. “Research shows leaders with even three hours of mental health awareness training (MHAT) report improved attitudes about mental health and a higher motivation to promote mental health at work.”
2. Normalize Mental Health Conversations at Every Level
Bringing mental health into conversations provides individual with support for everyday situations but it also begins to break down the damaging stigma. In fact, “eight in ten workers say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment for a mental health condition.”
“Respecting and treating mental illness on par with other medical illnesses is the first step to improving employee quality of life—the foundation of an effective workplace.” Empowering employees to talk about their challenges, request time off for mental health purposes, and be honest about their struggles creates an inclusive and more responsive environment.
But talking about these kinds of topics can be challenging for those who are not accustomed to it. The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s (APAF’s) Center for Workplace Mental Health offers a place to start: “If you’re an employee, check on your co-workers, share your mental health needs with your manager, and ask for support. If you’re an employer, create a culture where mental health can be talked about openly, invest in mental health benefits, and communicate any resources available to employees.”
3. Think Differently About Mental Health Benefits and Resources
Finally, offering access to flexible, employee-centric, innovative benefits and resources for mental health should continue to remain a priority for HR and organizational leaders. And though one-off programs and new technology may not be used, before getting rid of them altogether, getting input from employees on what they need and why they don’t use existing resources is important.
The key is to be in touch with employees on what they need. “It’s not enough to simply offer the latest apps or employ euphemisms like ‘well-being’ or ‘mental fitness.’ Employers must connect what they say to what they actually do.”
Considering “an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older — about 1 in 4 adults — suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year,” not only can employers be sure they need to consider the mental health of their workforces, by doing so, they can positively impact “a mental health crisis of epidemic proportion,” according to the APAF Center for Workplace Mental Health.
Treatment is effective in boosting mental health. “When employees receive effective treatment for mental illnesses, the result is lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased disability costs.” Beyond reduced productivity, mental illness is associated with higher rates of disability and unemployment.
In a study by the Harvard Business Review, “84% of respondents reported at least one workplace factor that negatively impacted their mental health.” The workplace can contribute to employees’ mental health challenges, but by prioritizing support and resources, it can help both heal and strengthen the community at large.