9 Ways to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

9 Ways to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

By Michelle Ercanbrack

If you think you don’t need to be concerned about employee mental health, think again. Mental health conditions are more common than you may think, affecting nearly one in five adults in the United States alone, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

While mental illnesses vary in severity, it’s no secret that poor mental health can affect employee performance. In addition to disrupting an employee’s sense of well-being, mental health issues in the workplace can also take a significant toll on your organization.

But what is mental health? And what does mental illness look like in the workplace? In this guide, we’ll help you understand the scope of mental health in the workplace, explain why businesses should take the initiative to address it, and discuss what HR, leaders, and employers can do to help foster and maintain positive mental health in the workplace.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is a state of mental well-being that affects how we think, feel and act. Mental health, along with physical health is an essential component of our overall health. Mental health should not be confused with mental illness.

For example, you can have poor mental health without having a mental illness and vice versa.

The 5 Most Common Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

The most common mental health conditions at work include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic attacks, or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorder (addiction to drugs or alcohol)

Factors That Can Affect Mental Health at Work

Employee mental health can also be negatively affected in the workplace due to:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Poor communication
  • Long or inflexible hours
  • Unsafe or poor working conditions
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Job uncertainty
  • Lack of support
  • Low recognition
  • Violence, harassment or bullying
  • Discrimination and exclusion
  • Inadequate pay
  • Lack of investment in career development.

For example, workers who constantly feel pressured by a heavy workload or a stressful work environment may develop depression—the most prevalent mental illness in the workforce. Of course, stress outside of work can also affect a person’s mental health, which may then affect their work.

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The Danger of Ignoring Mental Health in the Workplace

A great deal of research confirms that decreased productivity is the number one business expense resulting from untreated mental illness at work. For example, Mind Share Partners finds 61 percent of workers with mental health issues say their productivity is affected by their mental health, while 37 percent say their work environment contributes to their symptoms.

In addition to diminished productivity, other potential business losses from poor mental health in the workplace include:

  • Increased absenteeism (taking sick days)
  • Increased likelihood of workplace accidents
  • Increased disability costs
  • Increased turnover
  • Decreased employee engagement.

The World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that 12 billion working days are lost every year due to anxiety and depression. However, spotting a mental illness at work can be difficult as an employee may seem fine one day and then not so great the next.

How Does Mental Health Stigma Impact the Workplace?

While online digital media publications have dedicated a lot of content—and rightfully so—to the once-taboo subject of mental health, a social stigma persists in the workplace among employees and supervisors.

This is understandable as no employee wants to give the impression they are overwhelmed or that they cannot handle the job’s responsibilities, nor do they want to feel belittled or treated differently due to a personal issue. Supervisors may also feel awkward or unqualified to address mental health concerns, or they may be worried that they will say or do the wrong thing and create an HR issue.

The persistent and widespread stigma associated with having a psychiatric disorder can often leave workers fearing they will lose their job if they disclose a mental illness. Many also worry that disclosure will cause coworkers to belittle or exclude them. As a result, many mental health issues in the workplace often go undiagnosed and untreated, which can leave employees feeling like they have to suffer in silence.

Why Mental Health in the Workplace Is So Important

Even though not all mental illnesses originate in the workplace, there are good reasons to address them there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) names several reasons why the workplace is well suited to creating a positive culture for mental health:

  • About 63 percent of Americans are part of the US labor force, so you can reach most people through their jobs.
  • Communication structures are already in place.
  • Social support networks are available.
  • Workplace wellness programs can identify those at risk and connect them to treatment.
  • Employers can offer incentives to reinforce healthy behaviors.
  • Employers can use data to track progress and measure the effects.

Besides being the right thing to do for your employees, investing in better mental health in the workplace is good business. The WHO estimates that every dollar invested in treatment and support for mental health disorders sees a return of four dollars in improved health and productivity.

9 Ways to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

Organizations have tried to indirectly combat mental health in the workplace by offering office perks intended to make the workplace more fun and inviting, like free food, game rooms, and other benefits. But while ping-pong tables and soda fountains do make office life more amusing, they don’t provide the mental health support for employees that’s truly lacking.

There are many steps HR and leaders can take to improve and maintain mental health in your organization. Some cost little or nothing. Here are recommendations from the CDC and others:

  • Make mental health self-assessment tools available to all employees.
  • Establish or enhance an employee assistance program (EAP), or employee mental health programs to provide free short-term counseling for mental health issues and other personal problems.
  • Offer health insurance that covers depression medications and mental health counseling with little or no out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching or counseling programs.
  • Distribute brochures, fliers, and videos to all employees about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment.
  • Host seminars or workshops that address mental health and offer stress management techniques.
  • Provide quiet spaces in the workplace for relaxation activities.
  • Train managers to recognize possible signs of mental illness in team members and encourage those members to seek professional help.
  • Offer employees mental health days where can take a paid day off to care for themselves and their well-being.

If all of this is new to your organization, don’t become overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once. Pick one or two initiatives to start with and add more as your time and resources allow.

You should also try your best to reassure employees that no judgment will be passed. While it’s illegal in most cases to even talk about, much less terminate or demote an employee for revealing a mental health issue, it’s still a very real risk for people that they will be seen differently by their peers and superiors. Organizations can provide reassurance and encouragement by being transparent about manager training around mental health, and by clearly communicating (and demonstrating) their policies and values.

5+ Benefits of Paying Greater Attention to Mental Health at Work

Research has found that 86 percent of employees say it’s important that a company’s culture supports mental health. Investing in mental health initiatives in the workplace can have sizable and measurable business benefits, including:

  • Increased productivity and efficiency
  • Reduced medical costs
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Decreased disability costs
  • Improved company culture.

But the most meaningful benefits can’t be measured in dollars. As you take steps to make mental health in your workplace a greater priority, look around at the individuals who are being helped by these initiatives. See how their lives are being changed for the better as they rediscover and reclaim their ability to enjoy their life and their work.

To conclude, while deploying mental health initiatives in the workplace won’t outright prevent mental illness from occurring, making an established effort and opening lines of communication can help break the stigma around mental health in the workplace. It can also provide reassurance for employees that support does exist. Additionally, paying greater attention to mental health in the workplace can help you curb the detrimental impacts of poor mental health that could take a toll on your organization.

Michelle Ercanbrack is a Senior Editor at BambooHR, where she leads content strategy for data-driven research, product, and the BambooHR Marketplace.

This article first appeared on the BambooHR website

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