Employers, Here Are 3 Ways You Can Advocate For Your Employees’ Mental Health
The greatest challenge employees face in the workplace today is asking for help when it comes to their mental health struggles.
Heidi Lynne Kurter
A common misconception is that mental health and mental illness are the same things. Everyone has mental health but not everyone has a mental illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines mental health as including “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”
Poor mental health can result from:
- Financial issues
- An unhealthy lifestyle
- Poor physical health
- A toxic and/or stressful work environment
- Transitional life changes/stressors
- Post-partum depression (PPD)
- (Reverse) seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- and more.
Cultivating a culture that supports and promotes mental health creates an environment where employees are comfortable asking for help. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “the workplace is the most important environment to discuss mental health and illness, yet it’s the last place we expect to hear about it.” While the pandemic has started to normalize and bring awareness to mental health, many employees are still afraid to seek help from their manager or HR for fear of being discriminated against, losing their job, being labeled as “crazy” or being judged. This social stigma leads to employees suffering in silence and pretending to be okay.
Here are three ways you can advocate for your employees’ mental health.
Create A Supportive Space That Encourages Discussion
Managers often assume that employees who are struggling will reach out to them for help. However, the stigma around mental health remains and if it’s not being talked about from the top then employees will believe it’s not an acceptable behavior of the culture. Creating conversation is an ongoing practice, not a one-time event. The mistake most companies make is doing the bare minimum and expecting it to have a big impact.
There are a variety of ways that employers can create a safe space that encourages discussion around mental health, such as:
- Having leadership and management initiate conversations and open up about their own challenges (having a child, the pandemic, stress, etc...)
- Hosting open discussions at the company’s town hall or all-hands meetings
- Bringing in speakers and mental health experts
- Running workshops on various mental health topics
- Polling employees to gain their feedback of what they’d like to see or have, such as employee resource groups, specific initiatives or benefits
- Investing in Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DEI) initiatives and promoting an atmosphere that supports discussions around social and political topics
- Emphasizing a commitment to confidentiality especially when promoting the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Utilizing company newsletters to bring awareness to mental health topics
Advocate For Employees Through Policies And Initiatives
For years, companies have been actively promoting physical health initiatives through FitBit incentives, step competitions, and company sports leagues. Sadly, mental health was an afterthought. Times have since changed, especially with the pandemic, which has made mental health a business imperative. Rather than be reactive when it comes to mental health measures, employers should be proactive in ensuring that mental health is addressed through policies, initiatives, benefits, and resources offered. In fact, Bank of America’s Workplace Benefits Report revealed that 85% of employers have enhanced their benefit offerings since the pandemic. These offerings include:
- Increased sick and mental health days
- Improved healthcare/medical benefits
- More mental health/counseling support and resources
- Better financial resources and information
Mental health affects all areas of one’s life. If left untreated it can have harmful and long-lasting effects. Harvard Business Review asserts, “companies can no longer compartmentalize mental health as an individual’s responsibility to address alone through self-care, mental health days, or employee benefits.”
Some ways employers can advocate for employees’ mental health are:
- Implementing more asynchronous communication along with expectations of how, when, and where this communication takes place
- Reaching out to the company’s insurance vendor to learn more about the EAP that’s included with the company’s insurance package (sometimes a basic EAP is already a part of an organizations health insurance) or seeking recommendations on EAP providers
- Partnering with a mental health platform such as Fringe that offers a variety of benefits to meet the needs of everyone
- Actively promoting mental health breaks such as getting in a workout or yoga session, taking a walk, going for a cup of coffee, etc...
- Ensuring there are trained backups so one employee doesn’t feel as if the weight of the department rests on their shoulders and they can’t take PTO
- Offering more flexibility rather than having a rigid 9-5 expectation
While not every single company is able to offer flexibility, for companies where it’s possible, it should be a strong consideration. The 9-5 workplace is quickly becoming a thing of the past as employers realize that flexibility allows for greater productivity and happiness. Some workers may find themselves more productive during the evening after their kids are in bed while others work better during the day. For this reason, flexible working hours allow employees who are struggling with mental health to work when they’re at their best.
Cultivate A Culture That Embraces Mental Health
The unwritten rule of the workplace is that workers have to keep their personal and professional lives separate. The ability to do so is nearly impossible, however, employees who have shown emotion were typically labeled as unstable, too sensitive or emotional, and unprofessional. Expecting employees to hide emotions when they’re going through something difficult creates an environment of fear, silence and a climate of inauthenticity.
The reality is, emotions are at the core of employee engagement and motivation. Employers want engaged employees yet it’s the employers who disengage them when they stifle emotions and disregard one’s mental health.
Some ways employers can embrace mental health are by:
- Training managers on how to build relationships and conduct beneficial and effective employee check-ins
- Understand the signs to look out for when an employee is nearing burnout, burnt out, or acting abnormally
- Leading with empathy rather than assuming the worst
- Adopting an open-door policy that’s free from judgment
- Consistently promoting and advocating for mental health initiatives
- Changing the tone of how they talk about mental health and making it a regular part of communication to reduce, if not, eliminate the stigma
Amanda Goetz, founder and CEO of House of Wise, shared, House of Wise embraces mental health by giving employees the flexibility they need to manage their wellness, when and how they see fit. As the CEO, she makes sure to model this behavior by taking breaks throughout her workday. She said, “sometimes that means getting a midday workout in, other days it's sitting by the pool and reading for 30 minutes. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, just that I’m recognizing what I need to stay mentally balanced and not feeling guilty for being offline in the middle of the day.” She encourages her teams to do the same. Thus, House of Wise has cultivated a culture that empowers employees to take the time and space they need when they need it to practice self-care guilt-free. She asserted, “that's the beauty of an asynchronous work schedule paired with transparency and trust.”
Heidi Lynne Kurter
Heidi Lynne Kurter is a Workplace Culture Consultant and Leadership Coach helping agencies cultivate intentionally inclusive workplace cultures that turn employees into evangelists. In addition, she transforms managers into strong and impactful leaders. Heidi is also a Forbes Senior Contributor where she writes extensively about workplace culture and leadership strategy. She's an active member of her community as a domestic violence mentor, a volunteer leadership coach for Babson College students, a mentor for Ivy League students, and mental health and anti-workplace bullying advocate.