By Norman Winegar, chief clinical officer, Espyr
There is no question that the increase in mental health support programs in the workplace over the past few decades has been a positive change for employee well-being. Whereas popular opinion used to frame mental health as a curiosity that only at-risk populations should consider, not the average worker, we now have a more complete understanding of the way that people’s bodies and minds interact with each other and with adverse forces in their environment. With enough coffee and overtime, everyone joins the at-risk population.
But while most of us are now at least aware of mental health as a universal concern, and aware that we should do something to nurture it, the particulars remain unclear. Some employers, for lack of advice to the contrary, offer their employees nominal mental health support programs that do nothing in practice — they collect dust in a binder somewhere, diligently ignored by employer and employee alike. Others offer more-than-adequate resources but shoot themselves in the foot with internal messaging that inhibits the use of those resources.
Problems like these prevent companies from materializing the benefits possible with strong workplace mental health programs. Employers that do not effectively promote worker mental health services incur increased burdens from absenteeism, low productivity, and healthcare costs. Employers that do, on the other hand, stand to save more than $15,000 a year on each worker who might otherwise go through debilitating distress. Add to this the intangible benefits of mental health investment—a host of improvements in culture and quality of work following from the axiom that happier people tend to treat each other better and perform better—and the need for employers to prioritize mental health becomes obvious.
Looking to the future, I see a few trends and patterns that will separate the companies able to reap the rewards of investing in employee mental health from those that may fall behind.
First, employers should realize that workers’ attitudes toward the mental health programs on offer grow out of the culture created by leadership. If companies are making concessions to mental health but simultaneously sending the message that seeking help is unimportant, inconvenient for the company, or strange, more employees will hide problems and avoid resources in order to stay on the right side of what they perceive as a workplace social code. They may even begin to discourage coworkers, explicitly or not, from using resources.
I often challenge companies to examine whether their actions line up with their words, to find inconsistencies in internal messaging. If a company claims to value their workers’ mental state while handing them enough overtime shifts every week to disturb their sleep and family lives, employees will notice that dissonance and adjust their behavior accordingly. If a company claims to want to help workers thrive but expects them to investigate mental health resources available to them on their own time, workers will notice.
The goal to aim for is consistent support, in which companies provide channels of mental health assistance, inform employees about those channels, and respect mental health best practices in their everyday operation. While each individual is responsible to guard their own well-being, employers have a role to play in removing obstacles and providing clarity.
Second, companies should try to provide practical support that shows understanding of the limitations their workers are navigating. Employee mental health benefits, like all health insurance benefits, exist on a spectrum from poor to very good. Opting for channels of assistance that are too threadbare to address real-life challenges means that employers may save some money up front and then lose it later in hidden costs such as low productivity or absenteeism. Likewise, if an employer chooses a health plan with such a high deductible that no worker can afford to take advantage of it, the savings on the plan may disappear, and then some, over time.
Also, because the modern workforce is so diverse, the best employee mental health programs will take into account the preferences of the people they are serving. If a company’s workers are mostly women, for example, programs that do not address struggles like postpartum depression would miss an opportunity for useful support. If a company’s personnel are mostly young people, app-based mental health services might see more engagement than others. Tailoring resources to the audience in question can help companies support their teams effectively and optimize ROI.
As the workplace continues to evolve, employers will have a difficult task in front of them—first discerning the needs and expectations of workers and then balancing those against the viability of their businesses. For the moment though, the signs are clear: investing in mental health, with focus, sincerity, and insight, is good for everyone.
Norman Winegar is chief clinical officer at Espyr, with a background in managed behavioral healthcare, disease management, social services, crisis intervention, case management, and strategic planning. 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.