A Publication of WTVP

Why employers are in a prime position to make a difference in mental health

One in five Americans takes at least one psychiatric medication, such as an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug. It’s obvious that something about our modern lifestyles needs to change—and that change could start in the workplace.

Because we spend a significant chunk of our waking hours at work, employers are in a prime position to make a difference in America’s collective mental health. They can be a first line of defense in keeping mental health issues from taking root, and can play a pivotal role in helping individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety cope and recover.

Many employers can’t change the pace or workloads required of their employees, but they can cultivate a culture that fosters engagement and wellness. They can also take steps to reduce the unfortunate stigma around mental health issues, encourage employees to seek help, and actively support those who do. And while all business leaders should care for the well-being of their people, committing to these changes isn’t a purely philanthropic endeavor either—employers’ bottom lines stand to benefit a great deal from improving their teams’ mental health.

In fact, a study recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that depressed workers experienced more health-related productivity losses than those without depression, costing employers $44 billion. Despite the fact that depression and stress disorders are a significant source of lost productivity, 86 percent of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than speak up to their bosses.

Clearly, when employers step up and create a mentally healthy work culture, everyone wins. Here are eight tips to help employers create programs that foster a mentally healthy and high-performing culture:

Link your efforts to purpose and values. Employers need to understand that creating a culture of mental well-being isn’t something that can be changed simply by instituting new rules and policies. Employees’ well-being—particularly their mental health—is a very personal thing, and most people won’t be willing to speak up about their needs, preferences, struggles and experiences unless they feel your efforts are more than just another initiative handed down from the folks in the corner offices. People are motivated and energized when they really believe the changes being made will make a positive difference—not just to your company’s bottom line, but also to them as individuals.

Make sure leaders set the example. A recent Harvard study of 19,000 employees showed that only 25 percent believed their leader lived a balanced and sustainable lifestyle. The one in four employees who did believe their leader lived a balanced and healthy life were shown to be 52 percent more engaged and had a 72 percent higher well-being.

The point? The most practical thing leaders can do to create a mentally healthy work culture is to lead healthy lives themselves. For instance, if you encourage employees to leave work at work so they can devote time to family, friends, hobbies, exercise, etc., you need to do the same. If your people see you sending frantic emails at 10pm, they’ll assume they should be connected after hours, too—and their stress levels will remain at unhealthy levels.

Create a multi-year plan. Culture doesn’t change overnight, especially given the stigma associated with mental health conditions. When you consider that almost nine out of 10 of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than share their condition with work colleagues, it becomes clear that a long-term plan is essential. As they implement these plans, organizations should make sure to regularly assess the impact of stress on employees and how willing they are to share what is happening to them with work colleagues. Some of the country’s most successful organizations are including these questions in their annual engagement surveys.

Identify mental health champions. A mental health champion is someone who is familiar with the organization’s plan and goals and is willing to visibly lead change. While it’s important to designate champions at different levels throughout the organization, some should be leaders who have the power to shape organizational policy. And if possible, some should also be individuals who have coped with stress and anxiety, and who are willing to share their stories. Seeing that speaking up about mental health issues isn’t met with stigma or disapproval will be instrumental in ensuring long-term cultural change.

Given that one in four adults experience mental illness in a given year, it’s likely that most of your employees know someone suffering from a mental health issue, if they haven’t been dealing with one themselves—so finding champions may not be as difficult as you think. Soliciting their input for the design and communication of programs will be central to success.

Create a variety of programs and resources. Mental health is not one-size-fits-all. There should be programs and resources to help employees stay in the “green zone,” as well as strategies to help those who have slipped into the “red zone.” Because of the high levels of stigma that still exist, it’s essential that programs can be accessed anonymously, as well as in more traditional training settings. Be sure to identify processes and procedures within the organization that might be causing unnecessary stress—and change them.

Target high-risk employees. Many organizations have observed that mental stress is highest where engagement levels are lowest. Central to improving health outcomes will be identifying the specific areas where employees are disengaged, as there will undoubtedly be performance issues in these areas. Another key step in identifying high-risk employees is knowing what signs indicate they may be suffering from depression or anxiety. If a normally reliable employee starts calling in sick more than usual, missing deadlines or meetings, looks tired or overwhelmed, or has declined in overall performance, he or she could be suffering from a mental health issue.

Employers, managers and coworkers should also keep an eye out for changes in temperament. Perhaps an employee was known for greeting coworkers each morning or making friendly conversation during work breaks, but now goes straight to his desk or spends breaks alone or surfing the Internet. These could be signs that depression has taken hold—it might be time to check in with this person to see how he or she is doing.

Teach managers and team members how to ask, “Are you okay?” Fifty-one percent of employees believe the most effective way to address harmful stress is “speaking to someone at work.” This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask, “Are you okay?” and encourage the stressed employee to take action. I recommend a four-step process to building trust and helping someone you are concerned about. First, break the ice. The best ice-breaker? Simply ask, “Are you okay?” Next, listen without judgment. Then, encourage action, and finally, follow up.

Many managers are paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing and opt to say nothing instead. I guarantee that if you approach the conversation with a genuine effort to “put yourself in their shoes,” your intent will be felt and appreciated. Compassion or emotional support plays an essential role in recovering from depression. Employees say that when a supervisor or coworker shows they care about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity.

Monitor progress and share success stories. It’s simple: what gets measured gets managed. That’s why your organization no doubt monitors absenteeism, employee turnover and profitability—they are essential to success. Surveys that identify employee engagement and stress levels should be added to this dashboard, and leaders should be conscious of sharing mental health success stories—with the permission of the employee in question, of course.

Transforming your company’s culture can seem like a daunting task, but if you want to continue to succeed in a rapidly changing world, it is not optional. Just take this process one step at a time, making sure that rewards, processes, policies and guidelines reflect your commitment to improved mental health. The ROI your organization receives—in employee engagement, loyalty and productivity—will be worth it. iBi

Graeme Cowan is author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder.