Mental health has a huge impact on workers – and the workplace. These statistics paint a clear picture:
- 1 in 5 US adults experience mental illness each year (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- In fact, over 60% of American workers experienced at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year (Mind Share Partners).
- However, only 47.2% of US adults with mental illness receive treatment (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- U.S. companies lose 200 million workdays per year to depression alone (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
- The global cost of mental illness was $2.5 trillion/year in 2010. By 2030, experts believe it will go up to $6 trillion/year (World Economic Forum).
Concerning as these numbers are, they’re just part of the story. As the stigma around mental health decreases, people are more willing to ask for help. That’s where you come in. In this article, we’ll share some practical strategies leaders can use to improve workplace wellness.
Fighting the Stigma Around Mental Illness
Talking about mental health in the workplace can be uncomfortable or even dangerous. Many employees worry that that disclosing a diagnosis could put their job at risk. Bosses might fear awkward conversations or – worse yet – compliance issues. But ignoring your employees’ health just causes other problems.
Supporting your workers’ mental health improves productivity and employee engagement (National Institute of Health). It also decreases burnout rates and improves their overall quality of life. In short: it’s good for you, your team, and your business.
The Role of Employers in Employee Mental Health
You have certain responsibilities to your team when it comes to mental health. Some of these are compliance issues – for example, FMLA regulations allow time off for addiction treatment. It’s vital to stay on top of changing laws, so you can offer your employees the right benefits.
But supporting a team means more than following federal regulations. As our culture normalizes mental health treatment, more people are coming to expect support for their mental health in the workplace. To attract and retain top talent in this era, you might need to implement a workplace wellness program.
How to Design a Workplace Wellness Program
A successful workplace wellness program isn’t just a set of initiatives; it centers wellness as a core value. And it’s important to remember that “wellness” means something different for everyone. You can use these ideas a starting point, but look for ways to tailor your program to your team’s unique needs.
Know the Laws
The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) increased legal protections for people with certain conditions and symptoms. Specifically, the ADAAA defines the term “disability” to include mental health diagnoses – like PTSD – that weren’t always protected. Now, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate based on those conditions.
Employers can’t ask about mental health issues during the hiring process and – importantly – employees are not legally required to disclose their mental health conditions.
As a general rule, employees only need to disclose a diagnosis when they request a specific accommodation because of it. If you’re concerned that an employee can’t complete their work, or you think they pose a safety risk because of a mental health issue, you must be able to provide objective evidence to back up that claim.
Provide Reasonable Accommodations
It can be scary to disclose any kind of health issue at work. If there’s any social stigma around that health issue, things get even harder. It’s important to let your team know that if they go public with a diagnosis, you’ll support them to the best of your ability. Encouraging employees to ask for help when they need it is a great way to foster loyalty.
Let your team know in advance that if they disclose a mental health issue, their job will be safe. Your wellness program should also detail your process for giving employees accommodations.
The ADAAA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. For example, you might allow them to have snacks at their desk if they need to take medication with food. These accommodations should empower your employee to do their best work.
Employees may also need sick leave for mental health reasons. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid time off to deal with a mental health crisis. After their absence, you can work with these employees on a “Return to Work” plan.
Offer Flexible Scheduling
In this post-COVID era, flexible scheduling is more common than ever. This is important for workers with mental health symptoms for several reasons. For one thing, it allows them to see therapists and other providers as needed.
Just as important: this practice offers dignity to employees with unpredictable symptoms. If an employee wakes up in the morning so sick that they can’t work, calling off can be simple and straightforward. It shouldn’t matter whether they’re staying in bed with food poisoning or panic attacks. Leaders can support their teams with:
- WFH options
- Flexible hours
- Time off for medical appointments, including weekly therapy sessions
Offer Practical Wellness Strategies
A great workplace wellness program supports everyone on your team – even people with no current mental health issues. Offer benefits that anyone can use to stay healthy, both physically and emotionally:
- Health insurance with no or low co-pays for mental health treatment
- On-the-job training about mental health like how to avoid burnout, how to recognize the symptoms of depression, and similar
- Free or discounted membership to an online counseling service
- Employee Resources Groups, or ERGs, where workers can connect with each other and share mutual support
- Gym membership
- User-friendly resource lists with the numbers for various mental health hotlines
- Clear, easy-to-find instructions for how employees should request time off
Discover additional ways to help your employees thrive in our guide: How HR Can Promote Mental Health at Work
Cultivating a Positive Workplace Culture
The stigma against mental health issues can make symptoms worse (American Psychiatric Association). And more severe symptoms make it harder for your employees to ask for help. Without support from leadership, this spiral can quickly get out of hand. Fortunately, there’s a great deal employers can do to interrupt it:
- Normalize conversations about mental health – talk about it the same way you’d talk about physical health.
- Speak respectfully whenever you talk about people with mental health.
- Respect your team’s privacy. Unless you’re legally required to, never disclose an employee’s mental health condition without their approval.
- Never use words like “crazy” or “nuts” to mean “bad.”
- When it’s appropriate, hold space for your employees to talk about their emotional experience. Don’t automatically shut down conversations about feelings or mental health symptoms.
This list is a great place to start, but your team might need something more specific. And at first, you might not know what that is. Chances are good that some of your employees have mental health issues you don’t know about. That could be because they don’t want to disclose their symptoms, or it could be that they don’t have a formal diagnosis.
Mental health issues can also come and go over time, or because of external events. At any point, someone on your team could develop PTSD from a car crash or a death in the family. You never know exactly what your employees are going through.
Just acknowledging that fact can help you cultivate empathy. When you approach your team with patience and respect, you earn their trust – which is essential for employee engagement.
How Technology Can Improve Workplace Mental Health
The right technology can be a helpful tool for any workplace wellness program. Paycor’s suite of HCM software streamlines scheduling, benefits administration, company-wide communications, and more. Give your employees the tools they need to do – and be – their best at work.