Supporting Employee Mental Health

Increasingly, mental illness is becoming part of a mainstream conversation that employers must address. We work more than ever, take less vacation and have little to no paid maternity or paternity programs. We all have moments when we need to talk to someone, breathe and get the help and support we need. This may seem like a no-brainer if you have a program in place, but please read on.

Supporting Employee Mental Health

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) Are Not Enough

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer employees and family members assistance with a variety of issues, including mental health concerns, whether they are workplace-related or not. Employee assistance programs have been around for decades and many companies provide them for their employees and families at no cost. According to the American Psychiatric Association, an estimated 97 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees have an EAP; 80 percent of companies with 1,001 – 5,000 employees have one; and 75 percent of companies with 251 – 1,000 employees have one.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cover mental disability and illness issues. By offering an EAP, your company is quite literally doing the minimum required by law to help your workforce. And it is likely that there are employees in your workforce with serious mental health issues. According to the to National Institute of Mental Health, 6.9% of the American population live with major depression in any given year and it is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In addition, 18.5% of all adults experience some form of mental illness in a given year.

Your employees need resources beyond an EAP. I haven’t been shy in telling others that I’ve experienced depression and have PTSD as a domestic abuse survivor. Mental illness and personal struggles happen to us all, unfortunately, there is a stigma that prevents us from reaching out and getting help. Destigmatizing mental illness is a slow road, and we need the support of a community to fight our battles and that starts with the support of our employer.

I believe that companies have a responsibility in their employee’s mental health. Our people are not just a line item on a P&L statement. They are an investment that matters, literally human, not just human capital. It’s part of the social enterprise I talked with Erica Volini, the US Human Capital leader for Deloitte Consulting about on my podcast Ep 137 – Encouraging Executive and Leadership Collaboration. The social enterprise is an important focus in Deloitte’s trends report. Erica says that the social enterprise means that organizations will start to be measured by more than just their financial performance. These social enterprises will be judged based on how they treat and respect all stakeholders in external environment: shareholders, customers, and community.

What You Can Do Now To Support Employee Mental Health

Just like I talked about in a recent post on workplace civility, it’s important to make compassion part of your culture. Talk about mental health issues in workshops and make your workplace a “safe place” for employees through compassionate and supportive leadership.

While you can’t destigmatize mental illness on a global level, there are steps you can take to do it in your workplace. Considering that antidepressants are one of the three most commonly used drug classes in the U.S. and a 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 13 percent of people age 12 and over in 2011-2014 used antidepressants in, up from just under 8 percent in 1999-2002, it’s more likely than ever that more than one person at your company is battling depression or other mental illness. A few things you can do to create a compassionate culture:

Without forcing employees to disclose a disorder, you can train managers and team leaders to recognize the signs of stress and burnout (hopefully before the problem becomes serious) and consider gently mandating vacation or other time off for employees that gives them guilt-free opportunities to spend time with their families. Having a break room in the workplace where employees can relax, play board games, eat something or socialize, is also a good way to help prevent stress and burnout.

Some companies have policies like “summer Fridays,” where they close their offices mid-afternoon on Fridays in the summer and let all employees leave (on the clock) to spend time with families or on self-care. It’s hot, people have little vacation time, and their kids are likely to be out of school. It’s one way to encourage work-life balance without singling out specific employees.

Offer optional training classes on mental wellness and self-care. Consider bringing in an outside “work-life balance consultant” (yes, they exist) for a series of learning sessions on stress management and personal fulfillment.

Implement a day or two of additional PTO and label them as “mental health days.” This makes it OK for employees to take a day off when they’re not physically ill, and they don’t have to fake being ill. Make it OK for them to say “I just need some ME time so I’m taking a day,” without planning it ahead of time.

The bottom line:  It’s time for employers to step up and start talking seriously about how they can support, prevent, and assist families and employees with these challenges.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.


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