According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, more than half the people in the United States will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives, and one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year. It’s therefore not surprising that mental health has a significant impact in the workplace. In fact, according to the World Health Organization
(WHO), mental health conditions like depression and anxiety cost the global economy a trillion dollars per year in lost productivity.
Those who have never suffered from a mental illness often have difficulty understanding the depth of the problem or the inability of a person to “snap out of it.” For those living with mental illness, life at times can feel unbearable. Obstacles easily overcome one day can feel insurmountable the next. Minor worries can gnaw at the mind obsessively.
Some people with mental health struggles aren’t wired with the skills and abilities neurotypical people typically take for granted, making each day a battle to conform to ordinary social expectations. But those with mental illnesses almost always want to feel better and do better; this is where employers can play a role.
also says that for every dollar put into treatment for common mental illnesses, there is a return of four dollars in improved health and productivity.
Supporting mental health in the workplace empowers employees to do top-notch work and create a diverse and inclusive culture. Also, there is clearly an impressive return on investment. However, employers may feel uncomfortable about involving themselves in this aspect of their employees’ lives. Employees may be reluctant to speak openly about their struggles, especially if their condition is affecting their job performance, or the stress of work is worsening their condition. There’s also the risk that an employer might inadvertently say or do something that acts as a stressor or provokes a discrimination claim.
All of this can create a cycle of distrust and fear, where neither employers nor employees want to talk about mental health issues. When this happens, employees don’t get the help they need, putting themselves and their employers at risk.
So, what can you do to promote mental health in the workplace without being overly invasive? Fortunately, a lot. Here are our specific recommendations:
Promote a healthy, balanced approach to performance metrics
Productivity and efficiency are important metrics for success, especially in a competitive market, but they’re not the only sign of a healthy organization. Putting too much stress on productivity and efficiency can be unhealthy. No one tries to sprint an entire marathon. Similarly, employees can’t be at their highest productivity level every working hour of the day.
Employees need a moment to breathe or a day to regain their peace of mind. They shouldn’t be afraid to take time to care for themselves or get professional support. On the contrary, they should feel encouraged to get well and be given the time to do so. The ability to occasionally function at a medium (or even slow) pace should be built into performance expectations so that employees can avoid burnout. This is a good practice regardless of whether employees have mental health conditions or not.
Offer mental health benefits, flexible schedules, and remote work when possible
In some cases, employees who want to get the help they need can’t afford it. Losing pay from a missed work shift might be too great a hardship, and effective treatments might be financially out of reach. These financial hindrances can exacerbate anxiety and depression. In other cases, employees can afford the time off and the treatments, but they can’t make regular appointments work with their schedules. If your clients can offer paid time off, health insurance benefits, flexible schedules, or remote work options, these can help employees find the time they need to work on their mental health.
Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
An EAP gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for issues such as substance abuse, relationship strife, financial problems, and mental health conditions. These services are offered through an outside provider that connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals. These programs enable your clients to provide professional assistance to employees while allowing them confidentiality at work.
Make reasonable accommodations when possible
If an employee informs their employer that they have anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition, and they request an accommodation, the employer should begin the interactive process to determine what reasonable accommodations they can provide in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA applies when an employer has 15 or more employees, but many states have similar laws that require employers to make accommodations at an even lower employee count.
Promote good mental and physical health in the workplace
Your employees, particularly their leaders, can also help make mental health awareness a normal part of workplace conversations. People should feel safe to talk about mental health and to seek accommodations and assistance as needed. Ensure that managers understand that if information about an employee’s mental health is shared with them, it should be treated as confidential and only reshared on a need-to-know basis.
Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to manage their mental health and get any care they need. Employers, however, can make it much easier and less stressful for their employees to attend to these matters by giving them the time, resources, and financial support to improve and sustain their mental health. That’s good for their employees, their organization, and society generally.