Focusing on Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental Health Awareness Month in May provides business leaders an appropriate time to consider ways to prioritize mental health in the workplace both during the month and for the long term. The goal is to ensure employees understand both the seriousness of the issue and the resources they can turn to for help.

Recent events have created an opportune time to focus on mental health. In the past two years, employees have gone through the upheaval of a global pandemic, radical changes in how they work, shuttered businesses in their communities, skyrocketing inflation and a new war in Europe. And so far in 2022, they’ve seen more mass shootings on the news than they’ve seen days in the year. The uncertainty and anxiety fueled by such events can exacerbate existing mental health conditions.

Focusing on mental health is not only good for employees but also a smart corporate strategy. Forbes reports that 80% of those diagnosed with depression say they experience at least some difficulty with work, home or social activities due to depression symptoms.

What Is Mental Health Awareness Month?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness founded Mental Health Awareness Month to support the millions of Americans who live with mental illness. The annual event seeks to educate the public on mental health issues, as well as fight lingering stigma regarding mental health issues and advocate for policies that support both those with mental illnesses and their families.

For many people, mental illness is no longer a taboo topic. They no longer see mental health as less important than physical health. However, the workplace often presents a more difficult environment than most when it comes to discussing mental health issues. Employees want this to change. Forbes reports that a survey of office workers found:

  • 72% want employers to champion mental health and wellbeing
  • That number is higher than those who rated equality (48%), sustainability (38%) and diversity (31%) as important
  • The desire for employers to champion mental health and wellbeing had majority support in all generations, including Gen Z (76%), Millennials (73%), Gen X (75%) and Baby Boomers (56%)

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, the message is “Together for Mental Health.” The idea is to bring people together to advocate for access to care for those with mental health issues. The challenge for business leaders is finding a way to incorporate this idea into company policy.

Making Mental Health Part of Corporate Strategy

The uncertainty and isolation that resulted from the pandemic, as well as the economic fallout that looks to continue for some time, has led to a spike in anxiety and a decline in good mental health, according to Harvard Business Review.

What can employers do? That’s a question business leaders increasingly need to address. While managers should always support their team members, it’s important they include a mental health dimension in their efforts.

Increase Awareness

The first step to meeting mental health challenges in the workplace involves educating people on the most current research into mental health. Employers should share resources on mental health issues with everyone on staff. Typically, this is a job that falls to the Human Resources department. HR staff can find relevant and dependable information through organizations such as:

  • The American Psychiatric Association
  • The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
  • The Mental Health America
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness

Share Experiences

A key component of the “Together for Mental Health” message is to reduce the stigma around discussing mental health. Nothing accomplishes that quite like managers talking to employees about their own struggles, especially those caused by recent events. By talking about their own mental health difficulties, managers make it easier for employees to open up about their own. Managers can also model good mental health by sharing actions they are taking to improve self-care, such as exercising during the day or routinely seeing a therapist.

Check In With Employees

This is especially important for businesses with a large portion of the workforce working remotely. Sometimes an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality can lead to managers not routinely asking questions of their direct reports to discover how they are doing working from their homes or a remote office. HBR reports that 40% of global employees said during the height of the pandemic that no one at their company had asked if they were doing OK. Those same respondents were 38% more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined.

Offer Training to Managers

Businesses benefit by offering training to managers that helps them become more aware of mental health issues, including both the signs of them and the impact they can have on an employee’s performance. Training should focus on making managers more sympathetic to those experiencing mental health challenges, as well as giving them information on how they can support those who do.

Encourage Better Work/Life Balance

Finding the right work-life balance is difficult under any circumstances, but especially for remote employees working from home. The risk of work burnout increases when people blur the lines between work and their personal life. Employers can help in this area by offering flexible working hours that allow employees to better fit their work day around personal schedules (such as those with children in childcare, for example). Simply avoiding heavy traffic during commuting hours can help — 33% of those with commutes of more than one hour each way were more likely to suffer from depression and lower work productivity, according to a study from the United Kingdom.

Offer Autonomy

Employers can create a supportive mental health culture by ensuring that people feel their jobs have purpose and meaning. By avoiding micromanaging and giving employees more independence and autonomy, businesses show they trust their employees to do what they are supposed to do. This typically leads to happier employees and reduced risk of mental health challenges.

Current Mental Health Trends

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, business leaders and managers also do well to keep up with the latest trends in mental health. This helps them not only better understand what they read and hear about, but also helps them identify issues their employees experience.

Trauma care. It’s now acknowledged that more than 60% of adults have suffered from a trauma event, which can range from living through a natural disaster to suffering emotional or physical abuse as a child. This issue especially impacts women and those from minority communities.

Social media boundaries. Unfortunately, “doom scrolling” – the act of looking through social media for bad news – became increasingly popular in recent years. A new trend is to create personal social media boundaries, such as limiting yourself to using social media only during short periods of the day and avoiding unhealthy online interactions.

Mental health days. In some cases, employees are acting on their own to use sick days as “mental health days,” a chance to escape for a day from the stress of work. However, companies increasingly are offering mental health days such as days off of Zoom or perks that support mental health, such as passes to a fitness center.

Businesses cannot hold themselves responsible for the mental health of every employee. But they can work to make the workplace one that supports good mental health. Mental Health Awareness Month offers the perfect time to focus on these efforts.