Five Ways to Support Mental Health in the Workplace

Updated on July 31, 2019

By Dr. Marie Moore

According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people in the workforce suffer from depression. In many instances mental health conditions go untreated, which can have a significant impact on work performance in the form of absenteeism and lack of engagement. As a society we have certainly made great strides in bringing mental health matters to the forefront, however there is still a need for a deeper understanding of mental health, especially in the workplace. Employers can play a key role in supporting employees who face mental health challenges by increasing comprehension and awareness and improving access to care.

Historically being in therapy and/or taking medication for a mental health condition has been viewed negatively in our society. The media sensationalizes mental breakdowns and often places blame on the psychological status of an individual. It’s rare for the public or the media to recognize that someone’s mental state is not just psychological but has to do with the whole person (mind and body), environment, biological and sociological conditions. 

Unfortunately, this limited view serves only to further the stigma and causes those in treatment to fear anyone finding out, especially their employer. By teaching and training employees about mental illness and highlighting how it is a condition like any other medical condition, employers can greatly destigmatize mental illness within the organization. In order to address such a widespread problem, companies need to create a safe, judgement free environment where employees feel comfortable disclosing a mental health problem in themselves or another colleague and feel as though their employer is equipped to provide effective support. 

Here are five steps employers can take in providing support to an employee experiencing mental health illness: 

1. Consult with Colleagues or Coworkers

Speak with other individuals who may work closely with the employee exhibiting signs of mental distress to determine if the pattern of behavior has been noticed by others. When conducting these conversations, determine whether the pattern of behavior is disruptive or impacting job performance and always assure associates that confidentiality will be maintained.

2. Gather Resources 

Before speaking with the employee, find out about the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), investigate referrals, available community resources, family/social support organizations, as well as any medical and disability benefits that might be available. This is an opportunity to help the employee become familiar with all the organizational policies that may be in place. It’s essential for employers to have local mental health emergency services readily available. And, when providing resources to associates, employers should strongly recommend them to connect with the EAP, doctor or obtain a referral to see a therapist, as soon as possible.

3. Express Empathy and Support 

Set up a meeting with the employee and inquire about how he or she is doing. This is the time to exercise compassionate listening, express any concerns over an observed pattern of behavior, and talk about how this may be impacting the employee’s productivity at work and personal life. Consider asking questions such as “are there stressors at work or personal life stressors that may be contributing to your current mental state?” Most importantly, assure the employee their confidentiality will be maintained. 

4. Outline Accommodations and Communicate the Long-Term Plan

Find out if there are any accommodations the organization can provide to the employee. The accommodation(s) need to be realistic and reasonable; for example, the employee meets with a therapist twice a week. The organization would determine if the accommodation is reasonable and would allocate the time needed for the employee to attend sessions.

Also, clearly articulate to the employee the expectations and outcomes of the agreed upon plan, ideally in writing. Make sure to include how the expectations will be measured. For example: the employee’s mental illness is impacting productivity, and the employee has agreed to seek out treatment from a medical doctor and psychotherapist. The physician will provide a biweekly status update on progress made, and the organization will track any improvements as well as productivity. The plan should also include what would take place if these expectations are not met.

5. Provide Assurance

Assure the employee that support is provided and act on any concerns the employee has voiced. For example, maintaining confidentiality is crucial to an employee experiencing a mental illness. Assuring confidentiality will be maintained permits the employee to feel safe, supported and develop trust. Employees generally feel supported by the organization when provided with resources, reasonable accommodations and communication is clear. Additionally, reflecting and restating information the employee has conveyed, assures the employee he or she is being heard and understood. 

It is not always obvious when an employee is experiencing mental distress. Therefore, it is even more imperative to familiarize the entire organization with the warning signs of mental illness. Employers can play a key role in identifying, supporting and treating mental health conditions through access to effective care. The investment in an employee’s long-term health can ultimately help an employer’s bottom line. Evidenced based treatments can lower total medical costs, increase engagement, reduce absenteeism and decrease disability costs—an investment well worth making.

Dr. Marie Moore is an Employee Advocacy Specialist with OneDigital.

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