June 10, 2020

By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP

The mental health movement in the workplace has been growing over the past several years. This focus is extremely important given the direct impact of work on mental health. The average person spends upwards of 40 hours a week working. Work is also a leading source of stress, which is a potential trigger of mental illness. 
Companies have so much to gain from investing in their employees’ mental health. Wellness increases productivity. And investing in employee wellness increases company loyalty and improves recruitment. 
If employees are more loyal and productive, often, the company will be more successful. This positive feedback loop is beneficial to both parties. It’s also beneficial to the mental health movement, where companies play an important role. 
Companies have the power to influence their employees through mental health workplace policies; the public through marketing and mental health awareness campaigns; their community through goodwill initiatives, such as support for non-profits; and their competitors, by making mental health benefits a competitive consideration in employee recruitment and retention.

How to Promote Mental Health in the Workplace

There are many actions companies can take to enhance workplace mental health. 

Companies can implement clear policies and values supporting mental health. Company leadership at all levels should:

  • Foster a culture in which seeking help is a sign of strength.
  • Reject and prohibit stigma.
  • Encourage open and honest discussions with employees about mental health issues, including anonymous feedback on workplace policies.
  • Reinforce that “health” includes physical health andmental health.
  • Recognize the spectrum of mental health conditions from emotional distress to diagnosable conditions, which requires access to different types of care.
  • Dedicate company resources to supporting workplace mental health.
  • ​Recognize that family challenges may impact mental health by developing policies to promote better work-life balance.

Companies can adopt recruiting practices that respect the potential contributions of candidates with mental illness, such as:

  • Placing job announcements where people with mental illness are known to frequent, such as Clubhouses.
  • Understanding that academic and work interruptions due to illness are common.
  • Seeking to implement Supported Employment practices, which allow more people with mental health conditions to enter the workforce. This approach recognizes that the extremely high unemployment rates for people with mental illness are addressable.
  • ​Supporting job market inclusion of more vulnerable mental health communities, including those with serious mental illness. 

Employers should consider reasonable accommodations, such as those covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This flexibility may allow employees to perform work activities better by offering more suitable work environments, schedules and time allowances for appointments.
Supervisor Trainings
Employers should train supervisors to identify emotional distress and implement strategies to assist employees who may be struggling. These strategies may include:

  • Making employees more comfortable talking about mental health.
  • Encouraging employees to seek mental health treatment when needed.
  • Assuring employees that they will not be judged or disadvantaged for seeking treatment.
  • Ensuring private and confidential discussions, which allows for building trust.
  • ​Rewarding and praising an employee for proactively addressing mental health issues, including making use of workplace resources. 

Employers can require all employees to complete basic mental health education. This helps employees support colleagues facing challenges and self-identify areas of concern. These strategies may include:

  • Using screening tools. 
  • ​Referencing community resources.
  • Providing teach-ins with therapists or other professionals, perhaps working with a mental health nonprofit to raise employee awareness and knowledge.
    • Train employees to better identify and manage certain work activities and environments that may trigger and exacerbate emotional distress. This can also include addressing coronavirus-specific triggers.

  • Encouraging peer-to-peer engagement and support. Employers can also share online peer-based support communities, which can complement workplace initiatives.   

Employee Benefits
An employer’s benefits package is an important tool in promoting workplace mental health. These features can include:

  • Good insurance coveragefor mental health conditions, including a diverse and comprehensive range of mental health treatments and a range of in-network providers. Modalities offered should includehospitalization, 24-hour services, partial hospitalization, outpatient services, medical management, case management and psychological rehabilitation services.
  • Employee Assistance Programs: Companies should educate and encourage employees to make use of these benefits.
  • Wellness Programs: Employers may offer on-site holistic wellness activities recognizing their positive impact on mental health. These programs might include meditation spaces, gym membership subsidies, mental health days, flex-time or peer-to-peer engagement. 
  • ​Remote Work: The coronavirus lock-down may show employers that telework is feasible as an ongoing option for employees. Employers can consider a ROWE model, which stands for Results Only Work Environment, whereby employees can work whenever and wherever they want as long as their work gets done. One study showed that ROWE promotes “employee wellness, particularly in terms of prevention behaviors.”

External Support
Employers may support the work of mental health nonprofits and issues impacting the mental health community to further signal company support for mental health. Notable initiatives could include:

  • Matching for nonprofit donations.
  • Supporting parity for behavioral health coverage through direct and indirect advocacy.
  • ​Helping disadvantaged communities, such as the incarcerated and homeless, where mental illness is most prevalent.

Corporate America does and can play an increasingly impactful role in the mental health movement. Supporting people with emotional distress and mental health conditions supports all employees. It allows employees to work at their best and can significantly enhance corporate performance. 

The growing and open discussion of mental health issues in society reinforces its importance to companies. Mental health initiatives are increasingly vital to corporate performance and corporate citizenship. They are a measure of the quality of a company. Good mental health is good business. 
Additional resources: Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health and One Mind at Work.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank the Stability Network— a coalition of 197 successful professionals living with mental health conditions who share their stories and experiences to help others. When I thought the possibility of meaningful work was impossible due to my mental illness, you inspired me, you showed me that that was not true. Your work showcasing non-stigmatizing examples of successful professionals has undoubtedly inspired many people as it did me.
Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City. 

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