Employee mental health: let’s break the silence

Look around your workplace. Even if everyone seems happy, chances are some of your employees live with a mental illness.

It’s not surprising that many workers are emotionally unwell given all we’ve been through the past few years. What I do find surprising is that despite all the headlines around mental health, so many suffer in silence.  They don’t have to.

Businesses have a key role to play in helping workers’ emotional well-being.

First, the numbers. Did you know that 20 percent of Americans have a mental illness? No doubt, many of them could be star employees, yet their illness holds them back. Fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and social withdrawal—all behaviors out of their control—hamper them at the workplace. Deadlines are missed, productivity is compromised, and quality suffers. Co-workers are affected too, as their colleague’s unintended negative behaviors drain the team’s energy and ability to collaborate.

Lost worktime is another factor. For example, in just a three-month period, people with depression miss an average 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity.

The good news: treatment for common mental illnesses is effective 80 percent of the time. Unfortunately, only one in three people who needs help gets it.

Prevention is important of course, and in today’s environment, it’s essential that employers support work-life balance. At NEMR, our team members now have off every other Friday, a policy we implemented to promote mental wellness. Colleagues get to spend extra time with their families, travel over long weekends or just take some time to decompress. It adds up to 26 extra days of PTO, but we feel that it’s well worth it.

Beyond prevention, what can employers do to manage mental health at their organizations? Here are four best practices.

Focus on reducing stigma

What is stigma? Quite simply, it is invisible barriers to acceptance and understanding. Sadly, stigma is a key problem in the workplace, and employers know it. Almost three out of four said that stigma surrounding mental illness prevented their employees from getting help (Source: The Hartford Financial Services Group).

One strategy to reduce stigma is for leaders to talk about emotional well-being when discussing business issues. Another is to normalize mental health, discussing stress, anxiety, and depression in the same way as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. As Fred Rogers said, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” Also, be sure to communicate that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that you are there to support employees.

Know the signs of emotional distress

How can you offer support? It starts with identifying changes in an individual’s behavior. If your typically upbeat, high-energy staff member is more tired, sad, or distant than usual, that can be a sign that they are unwell. Other symptoms include being more irritable and withdrawing from the team.

Remember, it is not your job to diagnose or speculate about an employee’s mental health. But it is important to ask how an employee is doing. Try something along these lines: “I notice that you’re not your normal self. Is something wrong, or is something upsetting you?”

Welcome accommodations

Because mental illness is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must make reasonable accommodations when requested.

What does that look like? Common examples include more frequent breaks, flexible work arrangements and leave to receive treatment. Know that employees do not need to use the word accommodation, but they do have to communicate they are having a challenge at work related to a medical condition or disability.

Honestly assess just how supportive you are

A study from the Mental Health in the Workplace Summit found that mental illness is the leading cause of disability for U.S. adults ages 15 to 44. More workdays are lost to mental health-related absenteeism than any other injury or illness. That’s why it’s so important that your organization creates a culture that supports employees’ mental health.

Mental health benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. A supportive culture includes training, procedures, resources, ongoing promotion and more.

If you are interested in self-assessment, NEMR Total HR can help you with a free scorecard to evaluate how well you are doing. Email us or chat with us here.