Workplace mental health: 5 ways to support employee wellness

Each year, one in five adults in the U.S. will experience mental illness. Yet only one in three who need help will get it. As a result, many people will either miss work or will get less done on the job. The latter is known as presenteeism, when people go to work while struggling with physical or mental health issues. This is why focusing on workplace mental health is so important for your bottom line.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. But WHO also found that for every $1 spent on treating common mental health concerns, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. 

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, many employers are enhancing emotional and mental health benefits. Types of support can range from managing stress, to treating invisible disabilities such as anxiety and depression. 

The potential benefits of supporting employee mental health include:

  • Increased productivity: Research shows that nearly 86 percent of employees treated for depression report improved work performance. And in some studies, treatment of depression has been shown to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism by 40 to 60 percent.

  • Increased retention: In a 2019 survey of more than 1,500 employees nationwide, more than a third of the respondents said they had left a job due at least in part to mental health. Of these, 59 percent said mental health was the primary reason.

  • Decreased health care and disability costs: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, rates of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases are twice as high in adults with serious mental illness.

The connection between physical health and mental health prompted the American Heart Association’s CEO Roundtable to release a report called “Mental Health: A Workforce Crisis.” It urges employers to provide comprehensive programs for the prevention and treatment of mental illness. “The cost of doing nothing is higher than investing in evidence-based prevention and treatment,” the report found.

Ways your company can support employee mental health

A nationwide employee survey found that what people want the most in the workplace are trainings and more easily accessible information about where to go or who to ask for mental health support. A more open culture about mental health at work is also important to employees, according to the survey. 

With those findings in mind, here are five ways your company can support employee mental health:

1. Understand how mental health impacts your employees.

“It’s important for managers to be trained to recognize the signs of emotional distress so they can react in a supportive rather than a punitive way,” says Jerome Schultz, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. “Some employees need people around them to say, ‘Hey, I see you might be feeling stressed. Maybe now is a good time to try some breathing exercises or go take a walk.’” 

Here are some proactive steps you can take to understand and assess your employees’ mental health:

  • Make mental health training mandatory for your company’s leaders to help them be more aware of and invested in this aspect of their employees’ well-being.

  • Train managers on what to do if they see signs of emotional distress or substance abuse.

  • Use mental health calculators to estimate the prevalence and associated costs of untreated depression and alcohol and substance abuse at your workplace.

  • Consider using surveys such as the Work Limitations Questionnaire and the Brief Job Stress Questionnaire to measure how your employees’ health and stress levels affect their productivity.

2. Include mental health coverage as part of your health care plan.

  • Learn about the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. It requires insurance coverage for mental health conditions (including substance use disorders) to be no more restrictive than insurance coverage for other medical conditions.

  • Avoid plans that offer “phantom” mental health coverage. And find out how many psychologists and psychiatrists are in-network.

  • Provide a health savings account (HSA) to help offset out-of-pocket costs.

3. Establish an employee assistance program (EAP).

Many companies use an employee assistance program (EAP) to support workplace mental health. Some employees may be reluctant to use this resource due to fear of stigma, shame, and lack of understanding about how these confidential programs work. But there are things your company can do to increase EAP usage. 

For instance, New York’s YMCA of Greater Rochester changed their communication strategy about their EAP. Instead of just posting notices in break rooms, they now send out a monthly mental health newsletter.

“The newsletter reminds employees these benefits are available to you. It’s paid for you. It’s there for you. Use it as much as you want,” says Fernán Cepero, YMCA of Greater Rochester’s senior human resources business partner. “Employees know ‘I can call to work out a plan. I can get assistance I need now rather than waiting for a crisis. I can get help before I even have to use my insurance.’” 

To encourage employees to use an EAP, your company can:

  • Provide direct access to mental health professionals via phone and/or in-person.

  • Offer this resource to employees as well as to their immediate family members.

  • Make it easy for employees to know who to talk to or where to go to access mental health resources.

  • Emphasize that your EAP can be accessed confidentially and free of charge.

4. Use communication to reduce stigma and increase access to mental health resources.

  • Don’t wait until open enrollment to mention mental health benefits and community resources. Promote them frequently, such as in monthly newsletters.

  • Ensure that your executives mention emotional well-being every time they talk about recruiting talent and building an inclusive culture that helps employees bring their best selves to work.

  • Offer workshops so employees can learn more about mental health and resilience.

5. Promote well-being.

  • Build as much flexibility as possible into all employees’ schedules.

  • Offer access to apps that can help with sleep and stress reduction.

  • Consider offering a meditation room, mindfulness training, and/or yoga classes at work.

  • Encourage employees to use their vacation time. Some companies do this by limiting the amount of vacation employees can roll over into the next year. 

  • Provide accommodations and develop a return-to-work process so that employees who need to take a leave of absence because of a mental health issue feel supported when they come back.

And finally, create opportunities for employees to build connections with each other, such as through social events, affinity groups, and electronic message boards. 

“Employees are more vulnerable to the negative impact of stress inside and outside of the workplace if they have not built strong positive relationships at work,” says Schultz. “Help make work interesting, social, and fun, so stressed-out employees aren’t working in isolation. Workplace relationships that are positive provide a source of support — that’s hard for anything else to replace.”


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