The Business Case for Normalizing Mental Health Conversations in the Workplace
Should mental health conversations and support be a core element of your people strategy?
That question probably generates mixed emotions right?
Well, you wouldn't be alone in feeling that way. As you're all aware, I tend to ask a lot of questions about a lot of things to a lot of people.
One conversation theme that's been generally avoided is the topic of mental health in the workplace. I never really had it on my radar until it came up in conversation with folks in my network.
It's clear that more and more workplaces are striving to be more inclusive overall. But how does that inclusion effort incorporate employees with mental health illnesses and conditions?
The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in depression and anxiety post COVID and NAMI noted that 20% of the adult workforce experience some sort of mental illness. Adriana DiNenno, Senior Product Manager at Health eCareers, noted that many employers might not recognize the downstream impacts of employee mental health issues. Organizations that don't have mental health supports integrated into their operations can face lower employee morale, increased absenteeism, lower productivity, and other negative business impacts.
It is paramount for organizations to identify and implement initiatives that foster mental health in the workplace. So, where do employers start when trying to create a more supportive mental health culture? Cliff Jurkiewicz, CSM, TXM, VP of Global Strategy, at Phenom kept it simple: "Ask employees what they would do to create and maintain that culture. This MUST be employee driven, and they also need to hold each other accountable for its support and success."
Once employees have had input on the design and elements, it's time to do the work of executing on the design. Simple steps like promoting mental health awareness to employees, allowing them feel safe to come forward and talk about any issues, no matter how small (Gubanov et al., 2018) go a long way to normalizing these conversations. This encourages sharing of mental health experiences and builds a trusting and understanding atmosphere.
Promoting mental health awareness not only encourages employees to come forward if they are struggling with mental health issues, but it can also lend itself to a more healthy work environment (Reed Paragraph). By providing resources that enable employees to access therapy and other forms of mental health support, employers can ensure that their employees have the proper resources to cope with difficult emotions and get the help they might need (Kanai). Having an accessible, supportive workplace gives employees confidence in their employer, and helps to create a strong foundation for success.
Companies that encourage access and use of therapy or counselling are empowering their people to tackle any issues they face head on. This helps employees to effectively cope with difficult emotions and get the right help (Stoldal et al., 2017). Providing support at this level helps to foster an empowered workforce which can help contribute to better retention outcomes. It should be evident that a culture which is supportive of mental health in the workplace can help create more positive and productive work environments.
Creating a supportive workplace for employees’ mental health is essential for both a business’s success and workers’ overall wellbeing. A work culture that encourages understanding and encourages using helpful resources is key for reducing mental health-related stigma, and is likely to make employees more comfortable in seeking care when necessary (Canady et al., 2020). Such efforts also can produce long-term positive effects, such as improved employee satisfaction, higher productivity, and decreased stress levels (The American Institute of stress, 2019).
Companies can promote mental health awareness through events, mental health conversation programs, and trainings to ensure employees understand the importance of mental health and the resources they can access (Sayre, 2020). It is clear that encouraging a healthy work-life balance, and striving to create a workplace culture that values mental health, is critical for the success of any business.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mental health in the workplace "positively impacts employees' ability to perform and organizations' ability to succeed." While many companies are beginning to create cultures that are supportive of mental health and understanding of the conditions of their employees, it is ultimately the responsibility of the employee to look after their own mental health.
An argument can be made that companies should not be expected to build cultures that helps employees with their mental health struggles. Rather, it should be up to employees to actively seek out help and resources for their own mental health if necessary. While employers can be supportive, the primary responsibility for mental health in the workplace should rest with the individual. It can be debated if this view will be effective in post-pandemic world given the level of work-life integration that comes with the new normal.
Creating a culture of workplace mental health and wellbeing is an important step that companies should take in order to ensure their employees can work in a healthy and productive environment. Companies should create strong support systems through implementing initiatives such as flexible work schedules, comprehensive health benefits, stress management resources, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, and mental health days off.
When we look at the unsettled 2023 forecast and the rising tide of layoffs, providing mental health support at the organizational level becomes even more critical. You will see many organizations start cutting back on a number of initiatives and "nice to have" programs. Those companies that stay the course and continue to be people centric in their approach have an opportunity to build a lasting competitive advantage.
Investing in the mental health of their workforce can help companies increase productivity and reduce costs related to absenteeism, burnout, and workplace conflict. Ultimately, creating supportive workplace cultures can help companies maximize their employees’ potential and increase their business success while also decreasing mental health stigma in the workplace.
The question becomes, what sort of organization are you building?
Are you cutting to the bone when things get shaky or are you doubling down on what employees need?
Your choices will be remembered.
Talent Strategy 60 - Job Seeker Workshop: https://www.linkedin.com/video/event/urn:li:ugcPost:7017210021432184832/
Cascading Leadership - Terrance Cooley episode drops 1/12/23, Ashley T Brundage episode drops on YouTube 1/11/23.
Gubanov, G., Hoenear, R., & Glozier, N. (2018). Psychological safety in the workplace: A systematic review of risk factors and outcomes. Safety Science, 107, 252-262.
Stoldal, S., Langholm, K., Vanrooij, S., & Foss, S. (2017). Mental and physical health benefits associated with workplace group counselling interventions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 214, 152-164.
The American Institute of Stress. (2019). About stress. Retrieved from https://www.stress.org/about-stress/.
APA. (n.d.). Mental Health in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/workplace-mental-health/.
Canady, R., Edwards, J., & Griffin, B. (2020). 5 key strategies for promoting mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2020/5-key-strategies-for-promoting-mental-health-in-t.
Kanai, R. (n.d.). The benefits of investing in employee mental health. Retrieved from https://www.towerswatson.com/en-US/Insights/Newsletters/Americas/insurance-strategy-consulting-newsletter/2013/the-benefits-of-investing-in-employee-mental-health.
Reed, M. (2018, October 9). The benefits of workplace mental health programs. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org
By Dr. Jim Kanichirayil
Keywords: Leadership, HR, Diversity and Inclusion