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How to Support Mental Health in the Workplace

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Read Time: 11 min

You probably don’t think you need to worry about mental health initiatives at your company. You’re probably wrong. 

Almost one in five American adults experience mental illness in any given year. That’s 43.8 million people. In other countries, too, mental health in the workplace is a serious issue affecting millions of people, and globally, depression and anxiety alone cost an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity (according to data from the World Health Organization).

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Mental health in the workplace is a serious issue. Source: Envato Elements

Mental health also has a huge stigma attached to it. Many employees will understandably be reticent about going to their boss and saying they're struggling with mental health issues or work-related stress. One study found that only 2% of employees would talk to HR about a mental health problem.

Think about the confluence of those two factors: the prevalence of mental illness and people’s unwillingness to talk about it. Isn’t it likely, then, that you've got employees in your organisation who are experiencing mental health issues and not telling anyone about it?

In this tutorial, you’ll learn what you can do to support your employees by dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. We’ll start by looking in more detail at why mental health at work is an important issue, and then we’ll go through ten things you can do to tackle it.

The Facts on Mental Health in the Workplace

When you hear a big number like the $1 trillion global cost of depression and anxiety, it’s shocking, but it’s also easy to ignore it and think it’s affecting someone else.

So, it’s important to break that number down and look at how it affects every company, from small businesses and startups right through to large corporations.

Mental health issues among your staff, especially when they go undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to a range of problems, from absenteeism and poor morale to bad decision-making. Studies have found that depression is associated with an increased risk of injury among workers.

On the other hand, 80% of employees treated for mental illness report improved levels of work efficacy and satisfaction. If you can provide people with the support they need, you can help create positive outcomes.

And there’s a flip side to the coin too. Mental illness doesn’t have to prevent people from contributing as employees. The concept of neurodiversity captures the idea that people have a wide variety of ways of thinking, and there can be a benefit to your company in having people who think differently.

“Cognitive diversity is just as important as diversity of race, religion, and gender,” says Rebecca Covington, Envato's Diversity & Inclusion Advisor. “You need general diversity of thought, people who can bring a new way of looking at things.”

As an employer, you've got a role to play. You can either make things better or make them worse. If you support your employees using the techniques outlined in this tutorial, you can help them to function well and make positive contributions. But if you pile on the work-related stress and fail to provide support mechanisms, you can contribute to greater mental illness in the workplace.

According to the World Health Organization, these workplace practices can create greater risks to people’s mental health:

  • inadequate health and safety policies
  • poor communication and management practices
  • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work
  • low levels of support for employees
  • inflexible working hours
  • unclear tasks or organizational objectives

Of course, you don’t want to make things worse, but many employers end up doing just that. Let’s look at ten things you can do to have a positive impact on your employees’ mental well-being.

10 Things You Can Do to Support Mental Health in the Workplace

So, what can you do to provide support for your employees in dealing with mental health issues in the workplace? Here are ten things you can do to help reduce stigma, increase inclusion, and get the best out of all of your employees.

1. Lead From the Top 

A company’s culture is influenced by many factors, but one of the most important is the actions and words of its leaders. If senior executives show by example that mental health is taken seriously, that attitude will flow throughout the organisation.

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins opened up a discussion about mental health by sending out a company-wide email last year in which he encouraged employees to “talk openly and extend compassion,” asked that they “have each other’s backs,” and told them that professional support is available.

He got more than 100 responses, and it led to panel discussions, forum posts, and follow-up messages in which people talked openly about mental health.

When leaders can share their own experiences, it’s particularly powerful. Emma McIlroy, CEO and cofounder of Wildfang, told Forbes about her own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. She talks openly about these issues both inside and outside the company, with the aim of helping people who may be going through something similar:

“The point is that if my team sees me going through something and can understand what I'm going through, not only does it create a human connection, but they know it's okay for them to go through the same thing.”

2. Work to Reduce Stigma 

Having people at the top speaking out about mental illness can do a lot to reduce the stigma that still surrounds it, but there’s more you can do too. Make sure that the message is consistent throughout your organisation, so that people feel comfortable talking about mental health openly.

Educate your employees about mental health so that they understand more and can overcome the ignorance that's at the root of much of the stigma (more on that later). Make it clear in your public messaging that your company is inclusive of people with mental health issues. 

Start with your recruitment policies, signalling to prospective employees that your company is fully open to neurodiversity. Also embed mental health in your company policies—for example, make it clear that sick days can be taken for mental as well as physical health. And make sure you’re not contributing to the stigma through careless use of language (e.g. calling people crazy, making flippant use of terms like bipolar, OCD, etc.).

3. Create a Support Group

A great way to show support for mental health at work is to create an employee network or employee resource group. This is a group of employees who meet regularly to discuss mental health issues in the workplace, raise awareness, start mental health initiatives, and so on.

It’s best if the initiative for this comes from employees themselves, but you can start by providing a supportive environment and encouraging people to speak openly. And then you can help the employees to create the group, set up a structure and guidelines, recruit members, etc.

Envato recently launched a mental health support/awareness group using that very approach: an employee had the idea, and D&I Adviser Rebecca Covington helped him put it into practice:

“The key thing is to get some passionate people involved, give them some responsibility, create a safe environment, and give them the reins.”

Covington is helping the group with things like writing policies and setting up roles and responsibilities, so that the members can focus on creating impact through the initiatives they're passionate about.

4. Offer Counselling 

Sometimes, employees may need more support than you can provide. Mental health is a complex subject, and while it’s great to do as much as you can to help out, you also need to recognise that there are limits. 

That’s why an essential component of any mental health initiative is to provide employees with access to professional counselling services through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a similar program. 

Usually, a company will contract with an EAP provider to give its employees access to free, confidential counselling services provided by professional psychologists. Sometimes, the benefit will be extended to family members too. It can be a vital support system for employees who need to talk through an issue, and it can prevent mental health issues from escalating further.

5. Offer Wellness Programs 

Workplace wellness programs have numerous benefits, from reduced stress to increased productivity. They’re also a popular benefit among employees.

These programs can include fitness and physical health initiatives like gym facilities and providing healthy snacks in the office. They can also include things like yoga classes, meditation classes, and even nap rooms where employees can take naps during the day. And they can provide information on health and wellness tips for the workplace.

There are connections between all the strands of health and well-being. Stress reduction and better physical health can have a positive impact on mental health. Running a good workplace wellness program is a great way to foster mental well-being. For more on reducing stress, see:

6. Provide Insurance 

Some employees will need medical help that goes beyond the counselling services covered in an Employee Assistance Program. It’s important to ensure that if you offer health insurance as an employee benefit, you ensure that the policy you choose has comprehensive coverage for mental health.

A basic level of mental health coverage is quite standard these days in most major insurance plans but look at the policy carefully and make sure that it doesn’t involve large copays or place too many restrictions on things like the number of treatments.

For more on insurance and other benefits, see the following tutorial:

7. Allow Flexibility 

Remember that World Health Organization list of workplace practices that can be damaging for mental health? One of them was “inflexible working hours.”

So do the opposite. Be flexible. Workplace flexibility is a good way to support mental health at work. Allowing people to work from home when they need to or to come to work later can help them to support themselves during any difficult times, whereas forcing them to comply with rigid rules can exacerbate work-related stress.

Allowing for flexibility in when and how people get their work done is a component of providing a good work-life balance, which contributes to good mental health in the workplace. It also contributes to other goals, such as gender equality and creating a positive work environment.

8. Encourage Better Communication 

The key to supporting mental health in the workplace is good communication. Encourage your employees to talk openly and respectfully about mental health. 

For Envato’s Rebecca Covington, a key element of this is encouraging managers within the organisation to be comfortable with taking other perspectives and trying to see life from other people’s point of view. Then they can work to build an environment of psychological safety in which people feel comfortable speaking about difficult issues without fear.

“You as a manager have to understand how to limit the instances when people are fearful and instead build psychological safety and allow people to bring their whole selves to work.”

9. Provide Training & Education 

A 2017 Michigan State University survey found that most people don’t understand basic mental health concepts, can’t recognise anxiety, and don’t know what to do about depression.

This lack of what the researchers call “mental-health literacy” can be a barrier to some of the things we’ve talked about today, such as reducing stigma and fostering better communication. 

Arrange training or provide educational materials to your employees to help them take better care of their own mental health and support their colleagues. You could set up a formal training program, direct people to online resources, arrange a talk by an expert, encourage employees to talk about their own experiences, or any number of other possibilities. Discover more about training here:

10. Be Adaptable 

Supporting mental health in the workplace isn't something you’ll ever be finished with. It’s an ongoing process that'll involve monitoring your existing mental health initiatives, seeing what works and what you could do better, listening to your employees, and adapting your practices based on what you learn.

Being adaptable also means embracing neurodiversity and being prepared to alter your working practices to account for different people's needs. It means trusting people to do their work in whatever way works best for them and providing them with the tools and support they need.

What Will You Do to Support Mental Health in the Workplace?

In this tutorial, you’ve learned some useful techniques for supporting workplace wellness and dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. You’ve seen how to reduce stigma, provide access to counselling and other support, adapt your working practices, and more.

Which of these mental health initiatives will you be implementing? Or do you have other suggestions of your own? Let us know in the comments.

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