Prioritizing Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health was once a sensitive topic that people avoided discussing. Now, it is being perceived more as an elephant in the room that cannot be avoided, especially in the workplace. Thanks to research and awareness, organizations are realizing that mental health and employee productivity are interconnected, and topics should be discussed as such. With this realization, there is more discussion happening amongst supervisors and business owners alike on how workplace environments can improve, so that employee’s mental health can thrive.

The financial implications of mental health and substance abuse amongst employees and in the workplace costs employers between $79 and $105 billion annually, according to the Center for Prevention and Health. The bottom line is that prioritizing mental health in the workplace has more benefits than it does disadvantages, including financially. If you need tips regarding how to go about it, continue reading below.

Look for Ways to Address Anxiety

Doing what you can to help ease anxiety at work is a way to prioritize mental health. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has found that American employees are most likely to report anxiety symptoms and use prescription medication. It also found that 28% have had an anxiety or panic attack at some point. Although you can’t manage their anxiety for them, you can create a more relaxing environment and reduce potential triggers to ensure a safe and calm workspace to be productive in.

Examples of stressors that could be triggering employees are deadlines, conflicts with employees, high expectations, and a lack of work-life balance. Not only can they increase anxiety symptoms, but it could result in reduced productivity.

To counter the effects of anxiety in the workplace, consider creating more flexibility when it comes to deadlines and encouraging better work-life balance for your employees. This could include outsourcing work in departments that are overburdened, as well as allowing flexible working arrangements, like the option to work remotely or to be flexible in individual work schedules. Another idea would be to regularly assess the needs of employees in both public and private meetings, and, most importantly, to take complaints seriously when they arise.

Implement Changes to Your Policy

You may need to introduce new business practices if you want to see long-lasting changes, especially when it comes to improving mental health environments in the workplace. In fact, only 40% of employees prioritize wellbeing in their benefits strategy, which is a missed opportunity for employers to ensure their employees are having their mental health taken care of. With this realization, consider updating company policies so they better encourage a healthier workplace for all employees, both physically, mentally, and emotionally.

To begin the journey of changing the atmosphere surrounding mental health, consider holding department meetings where you both outline the steps that will be taken to make changes, while also encouraging people to speak up and offer their own suggestions for improvement. These changes could be numerous, but should be implemented over time instead of all at once. An example of a simple introduction could be a policy that all employees must leave the office by 6 PM. Enforcement could include supporting employees who feel like they are falling behind so that they don’t have to stay long after normal hours, offering flexible working conditions, and closing up the office at the same time every evening and leaving in a group.

Making it mandatory that all managers have mental health training is another example of a policy that could work. The more knowledgeable they are on mental health challenges, the more support they can offer employees who work under them. It could also help eliminate the stigma around mental health and make employees feel more comfortable discussing their concerns with managers or HR. The idea should be to see how you can make changes at a policy level so that mental health is ingrained into your business values and practices, so that employees never question where the company or department stands. Doing this will not only help present employees, but could also help attract future employees, all while building a more supportive workplace.

Consider Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support is a tangible way of helping employees and making them feel like more than a dollar sign. Updating policies to allow for emotional support animals in addition to service animals in the office is an option to explore. A single designated office dog could be another means to help with stress management, as dogs are proven to help reduce stress.

Simply petting a dog is said to increase oxytocin levels and reduce cortisol. A 2012 study that looked at how an office dog affects stress levels also found that those who brought their dogs to work found their stress levels declining throughout the course of the day. Other benefits of having a dog are increased productivity due to having to take your dog out for walks and creating more meaningful interactions with co-workers.

Having said that, for the sake of balance, acknowledging the cons of bringing a dog to work is important, too. Two core challenges you may face are dog behavior and the inconvenience it causes for those with dog allergies. You could bypass this issue by eliminating in-person contact. A way to do this would be by having employees who are allergic to dogs work in different parts of the building, giving them an enclosed work space, or allowing flexible working hours.

Provide Information and Resources

As mentioned earlier, you cannot resolve all of your employee’s mental health issues yourself, but you can provide support. Giving them information and resources that educate them on how to manage their mental health on their own could make them feel supported and build their resilience in the process.

For instance, to help them reduce anxiety and stress in and outside of the workplace, you could do a monthly training or workshop on stress management. You could also give them worksheets that they can refer back to when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Another idea would be to give them access to discounted or free gym memberships, encouraging them to exercise, which can be a great stress reliever too.

Aside from giving employees the resources they need to empower themselves, consider providing an EAP benefit. This gives employees access to a handful of free therapy sessions which could do wonders for their mental health. Having a professional to confide in could improve their wellbeing in the long run as therapy can help manage conditions like anxiety and depression as well as help improve relationships. Not having to worry about the cost may also be more of an incentive for them to take up the offer.

If you want reduced absent rates and a greater level of productivity, prioritizing mental health is one of many solutions. The above suggestions could also help you improve the mental health and wellbeing of your employees, which in turn, could result in a more vibrant business.

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Providing Support to Employees With Serious Health Conditions

When an employee has a serious health condition, a certain level of accommodation is legally required. However, an employer’s obligation doesn’t stop there. Every person with health issues has their own needs, which may change over time.

Building and supporting employee wellness in the workplace means using effective communication tools, supporting employees by helping them access information, providing flexible work opportunities, and staying attuned to their changing needs.

Confidentiality, Empathy, Openness, and Support (CEOS)

Fostering a positive workplace culture is essential. CEOs, as well as management, needs to embrace the importance of CEOS. This acronym stands for confidentiality, empathy, openness, and support — the necessary foundation to build trusting relationships on. These tools can help you communicate with your employees about health challenges and support them:

  • Confidentiality: The last thing you want is a distrustful employee who ghosts you and fails to communicate, and the last thing an employee wants is to lose their job due to health issues or needing time off for appointments at the doctor’s office. By ensuring confidentiality when discussing healthcare concerns, you provide a foundation for better communication.
  • Empathy: When an employee faces a healthcare crisis, they may feel conflicted. They want to feel heard and understood, but they also need to remain professional and carry out work obligations. Many employees simply quit or find themselves laid off after facing a health crisis, so they may feel that it’s a risk to have a conversation with you about health-related topics. You can retain an employee’s trust by showing empathy. Listen actively and ensure you understand their needs and concerns by summarizing and confirming. A little empathy can go a long way.
  • Openness: Openness means you’re ready to support your sick employees when they come to you. This involves preparation. It’s also about how open the employee wishes to be about their illness. Some may find help in sharing details about their struggle, while others will wish to remain extremely private about it.
  • Support: Confidentiality, empathy, and openness are paths to support. If you’ve managed to implement these objectives, you can offer support to the employee. The best thing you can do here involves asking the employee what they need and helping them find a solution you can employ.

Understanding Invisible Illnesses

Invisible illnesses are especially important for managers and HR professionals to understand. Especially when it comes to chronic health pain and related conditions, you can’t always see that someone is in pain or understand their pain level.

When individuals suffer from chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, they may experience periods of remission (when there is little to no pain), as well as flare-ups when symptoms are at their worst. For some, this status can change in a matter of hours, and factors like the weather or office temperature are not-so-obvious contributors to pain for some patients.

Regular treatments for some conditions can create more pain in the short-term to improve health overall. Examples include physical therapy and chemotherapy.

Many employees facing invisible illnesses, including digestive illnesses like GERD, also need to make significant lifestyle changes, including new medications. Further, new diets and exercise routines can impact how employees relate to family and friends — and they may entail a real adjustment period for the employee.

Overall, managing chronic health conditions is different than curing them. Accepting major life changes after being diagnosed with a chronic health condition can be traumatizing, and finding specific solutions for pain management is often a challenging road.

Mental Health Considerations

One in five people have mental health issues, and these are not immediately obvious. Does your company have a policy allowing for mental health days? What do you do to take mental wellness as seriously as physical health? Thinking ahead can help you support employees in this regard.

Mental health conditions often accompany serious physical health conditions. Dramatically changing pain levels, various medications, and the strain of being sick is very taxing on the mental health of people with physical illnesses. Plus, it’s not always obvious: Many car accident survivors develop PTSD, so even the act commuting into work can be extremely stressful for them.

Three out of four PTSD patients respond well to medical marijuana, but many businesses are a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to marijuana use. Does your company policy on drug testing accommodate employees suffering from mental health issues or chronic pain?

The Insurance Problem

If you’ve ever been sick while covered by employer-sponsored health insurance, you likely understand how defeating and demoralizing it can be to deal with the insurance company. This problem magnifies when you have a serious condition like cancer.

To help employees access their insurance, make sure you have the insurance company’s contact information on your employee portal and in your welcome materials. Ensure this information is clear when you provide employees with any information about benefits packages as well.

While you aren’t customer service for the insurance company, survey your employees routinely. Stay aware of recurring gripes about the health insurance coverage and attempts to communicate with the insurer.

Human Resource Technology

Especially for larger organizations, human resource technology is crucial to supporting employees with health conditions. Provide a centralized location that harbors documentation and contact information for employer-sponsored insurance. Include contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — not only to provide the resource, but to show that your organization values conversations around mental health.

Software tools like Zenefits and Bamboo HR allow you to provide digital resource centers to your employees. Additionally, many employees struggling with serious health conditions have a more challenging time with professional development. Your digital resource center can provide a framework for employees to learn about and express interest in new positions, participate in self-training, and provide feedback on whether they feel you’re using their skills fully, which is crucial for neurodiverse employees who require direct feedback.

Managing Remote Employees

The most common accommodation for employees with serious health conditions is work-at-home flexibility. In the United States, 36 million people miss work due to pain at least once per year. Most of these workers lose between four and five hours per week due to pain issues, and most chronic pain sufferers feel like they are not effectively managing their pain alone or with the help of a doctor.

For a chronic pain patient, working at home can mean the difference between missing work and showing up. For the person having a panic attack every time they get in the car due to a recent car accident, a temporary work-at-home solution not only enables them to work but shows you have empathy for their experience.

Off-site employees can interface with on-site teams easily by leveraging tools like:

  • Skype for Business: This provides face-to-face and text-based communication instantly.
  • Time-tracking tools: Time-tracking software allows all employees to log in and out electronically, preventing the need for micromanagement, especially for at-home workers.
  • Project management tools: Programs like Trello and Asana allow employees in various locations to work with one another to complete pieces of projects.

With communication, compassion, and reliance on technological resources, you can support employees facing serious health conditions and enable continued productivity through flexibility. Only then will you reap the benefits on employee engagement.