After years of pandemic stress, on-the-job pressures and the personal challenges we face every day, it’s not surprising that more employees are struggling with mental health conditions than ever before. A recent survey found an increase in employers grappling with absenteeism and seeing spikes in requests for accommodations related to mental health since the pandemic began.
We can’t blame all of the increases on mental-health-related issues at work on the pandemic alone, there’s no denying we had issues before — but the disruptions and uncertainty of the last few years shed light on the importance of talking about mental health at work. And, for better or worse, created a unique opportunity for employers to openly discuss mental health and destigmatize mental health in the workplace.
Making Mental Health a Priority
One in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness — and most are employed. That means that right now about 18% of people in the workforce are experiencing a mental health challenge. And when employees struggle with mental health issues, employers struggle with productivity and this affects their bottom line. Untreated mental illnesses costs the U.S. $105 billion each year and that amount is expected to continue to rise in the future.
The silver lining is that we are seeing a shift in awareness and acceptance of mental health conditions at work. Almost 60% of employers say they are discussing mental health and proactively addressing issues like burnout, fatigue and workplace stress. But there is still progress to be made in some industries where negative stigmas surrounding mental health conditions still exist and there is a lack of trust in employers to provide confidential resources and support for employees. This must stop — it’s not good for business and is casting a shadow of doubt on lifesaving safety nets.
Destigmatizing Mental Health Conditions
Creating an open atmosphere of trust, loyalty and complete confidentiality is crucial. When employees feel comfortable discussing mental health without fear of retaliation, their performance will improve and you can create a culture of acceptance that trickles from the top all the way down.
It’s also important to note that in certain industries that require security clearance, workers might be extra cautious about career restrictions or damage to their reputation from using mental health resources. Mental health programs in these fields need to emphasize privacy, whereas in others the emphasis might be on convenience or a range of benefits. Regardless, the highest priority is to combat the stigma against seeking help, which is dangerous and not sustainable for anyone on the job every day.
Developing a Culture of Acceptance
Today’s leaders are taking a different approach and embracing mental health initiatives that benefit employees. They are stepping up to offer support during times of struggle. But mental health programs are still hitting roadblocks when it comes to reaching those who need resources the most. That may be because only 25% of managers have been trained on how to handle mental health struggles in the workplace — and this has to change. It’s up to management to get the word out and speak appropriately about mental health challenges and conditions at work. Most importantly, middle managers should receive training, they are the opinion leaders at a company, and if they have biases, those will get filtered down to employees.
Some other ways to create a culture of acceptance include:
- Checking in with employees to discuss how they are doing.
- Encouraging mental health days — and taking them.
- Knowing about the mental health resources available to employees.
- Communicating appropriately about mental health — words matter!
Elevating Workplace Culture for Good
Many of the large benefits programs offer free mental health and wellness resources to employees who participate in group health plans. These programs are well-intentioned, but many of them are not robust or comprehensive enough to make an impact. That’s why forward-thinking employers seek out professionals to help them go beyond to offer more effective well-being solutions designed to increase engagement through multiple channels of access and levels of support.
Partners like Espyr — a company that specializes in solutions to support employee and organizational well-being — provide a more progressive, proactive and customized approach for employees. Espyr’s wide variety of strategies and resources help relieve the burdens on individuals and companies that come from unaddressed mental health challenges.
With more and more workers in need of help to perform at their best, it’s up to us to address mental health issues head-on and create a comfortable, safe environment for all of our employees. Now’s the time to level up and flip the script on mental health support and biases at work.
Norman Winegar is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr, with a background in managed behavioral healthcare, disease management, social services, crisis intervention, case management, and strategic planning, Mr. Winegar is a licensed mental health professional and a nationally certified addictions counselor. Over decades in the behavioral health field, he has pursued the objectives of social and economic justice and advocating for the dignity of all people.