Mental health deserves workplace attention all year long
As a business leader, I’ve worked with colleagues and direct reports who have shared some personal mental health issues and challenging life experiences with me, especially in the last year. However, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about half of people in the workplace are not comfortable talking about mental health issues, and a third are concerned about reprisals if they seek help.
It’s my hope that the past year will help change the stigma of talking about mental health at work, especially since work-related factors can play a crucial role in exacerbating mental health issues. The National Institutes of Health sounded an alarm for workplaces when it noted, “there is a risk of witnessing the presence of another “pandemic” around the world linked to the development of possible mental disorders.”
I recently sat in a leadership meeting where it became abundantly clear to me that we need to talk about mental health resources more at work, and we need to train our managers on how to talk about them, too. This past year has impacted everyone both personally and professionally. The upheaval of life as we knew it, combined with the malaise caused by an extended period of time in lockdown, has caused some employees to become very direct when asking for help and support for personal issues.
For example, in the last six months, many employees shared the struggles their children were facing and how they needed help dealing with new behavioral challenges. In direct response, we held workshops facilitated by professionals to connect employees to resources in order to help children who are facing anxiety due to the massive changes caused by COVID. Another example, many team members have been open about spouses or partners who are dealing with the strain of being laid off or living with increased anxiety or depression.
The immediate and urgent nature of these mental health support needs has led some employees to be very direct in requesting support for their families through medical benefits and mental health resources. As a leader, I am relieved that our programs extend to family members and am thankful for those who feel safe enough at work to share their needs. However, I am aware that many people still do not feel comfortable asking for help.
When it comes to mental health, it is eminently important to connect employees with qualified counselors and other medical professionals while demonstrating respect and support. But, for me, it is equally important to talk about mental health resources so regularly that the subject becomes normalized in the workplace. Soliciting regular feedback through workplace surveys, 1:1s, and through managers and HR business partners is more important than ever. The challenges employees and their households face deserve our support.
For many, talking about mental health still feels taboo in the office (or in a virtual 1:1). We didn’t have these conversations ten years ago. In fact, before 2020, it was a rare thing to hear organizational leaders discuss mental health awareness and support beyond mentioning the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Like many organizations, I lead a company that has a robust EAP, including counseling for employees and their family members. However, offering an EAP is not the same as promoting it. It isn’t the same as providing details about medical plan benefits that include mental health coverage. And it certainly isn’t the same as communicating with and within the entire company about mental health resources on a regular basis.
The pandemic has tested our mental health resilience, and I’ve seen firsthand how people can come together for support. From Zoom cooking classes to group meditation sessions, we seem predisposed to draw strength from each other. For others, support is found in hosting virtual parent groups to talk about ways to help children cope with virtual school, long hours at home, and a vastly changed world. The power of the community as a mental health resource is undeniable. It’s one of the reasons why I encourage my team to communicate often and through different work channels when pointing to mental health resources.
Finally, when communicating about resources, HR frequently reminds the company about the power of digital support. Tech continues to grow in and out of our state, and there are many new resources. Happify touts itself as “the single destination for effective, evidence-based solutions for better mental health.” While it is a bold claim, we have made the app available at my company and see employees taking advantage of the additional digital resource.
Other companies offer resources such as Calm, Headspace, or Talkspace, among others. No matter what is offered, it’s important to remind people of what’s available early and often, and gather feedback about what people need along the way. At my work, we do this through regular pulse surveys.
Through listening, taking supportive action, and following up with communication about what’s happening, leaders demonstrate that they understand that work is first and foremost human. In what has been an incredibly challenging year, making mental health and workplace resources part of an ongoing conversation is not only the right thing to do, it is crucial for employee and workplace wellbeing.