What Employers Can Do to Promote Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental illness can have a profound effect on workplace productivity, but many workers are reluctant to disclose their mental health struggles for fear of repercussions. By creating a thoughtful strategy for promoting mental health in the workplace, you can create a positive, supportive environment that brings out the best in your employees both personally and professionally.

These days, blogs have become an integral part of business websites, allowing companies to engage with customers on a more personal level and reach new audiences in novel ways. Much of the time, however, blogs remain product-centered, keeping the day-to-day dealings of the workplace and personal lives of employees hidden from view. But last month, Jane Hudder, CEO of Kitestring, decided to change that. Instead of another typical business-oriented blog post, she created new rules for her company blog: “nothing forced and no predetermined topics. When someone is inspired or has something to talk about, let’s just let them write.” And Colleen, a front-end developer at Kitestring, had something to talk about. In a blog entry titled My Hair Is Wild, she writes:

I think ‘work hair’ is a good representation of living with mental illness. The average person wakes up, showers, does their hair, puts on their work clothes, brings a packed lunch, and goes off to work excited for their morning coffee. As someone with mental illness, I can tell you that my mornings are not usually a routine. Sometimes I wake up with a weight on my chest like I have a boulder just lying on top of me, and I don’t have the stamina to lift it up just yet. I lie in my bed, stare at the clock, and think, ‘How am I going to do this, how am I going to get up?’, hiding under the covers until the clock tells me, ‘Any later and you’re going to be late.’ The motivation to move from my depression is the anxiety I have if I’m late for work.

Colleen’s description of the struggle she faces to negotiate her mental illness and its impact on her work is candid and it is relatable. At a time of increased focus on mental health in the workplace, she is one of the few who publicly steps out from the behind the curtain to represent what millions of people silently suffer through each day. Her unkempt appearance isn’t the result of laziness or a lack of professionalism, it is the concession she makes to be able to focus her energy where it matters. “[I’m] just focusing on getting to work or school despite how exhausted I feel. Surviving is putting everything else on the back burner.”

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The Discomfort of Disclosing

While great gains have been made towards destigmatizing mental illness on a general level, even people who are now comfortable talking openly about their mental health disorders with family and friends are often deeply reluctant to open up in the workplace. CivicAction found that 71% of workers “are concerned about the stigma associated with mental health in the workplace.” A recent study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that a third of workers had experienced a mental health problem, but “only two out of five workers said they would feel confident when it came to telling their boss.” The most common reasons for this lack of confidence comes from previous experiences of discrimination and “expectations for further discrimination,” including ostracization from colleagues, diminished professional opportunities, and even loss of employment. As a result, all too many workers are left trying to keep their illness hidden from their employer, and without the professional support they need to heal, this often leads to high rates of both presenteeism and absenteeism that cost businesses billions of dollars each year. On a human level, an unaccommodating workplace can increase distress and augment symptoms of mental illness, interfering with overall quality of life and disrupting the careers of talented, hardworking people.

Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

So what can employers do to facilitate openness about mental health in the workplace and support their employees struggling with mental illness? According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK, “people with mental health conditions want three things from employers: flexible working, more supportive managers, and understanding from colleagues.” What that looks like in practice may vary from workplace to workplace, and it is vital for each organization to develop a plan of action that responds to the unique needs of their employees. The following four steps provide a starting point for creating a positive, supportive, and responsive environment:

Evaluate Your Environment

Every company has a unique mix of policies, personnel, and everyday practices that can create barriers to and opportunities for mental wellness. A comprehensive, anonymous staff survey aimed at evaluating the current state of your workforce is essential to ensuring your plan of action will address the specific needs of your employees. Some sample questions suggested by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) include: “do you feel supported by your manager and colleagues? Are the responsibilities and expectations of your work clearly communicated to you? Is there anything else your organization could do to improve mental wellbeing?”

Increase Knowledge and Access

Mental illness is often poorly understood and difficult to identify, even amongst those suffering from mental health disorders, allowing illness to elude detection until it has progressed to a more serious condition. At the same time, people who have a diagnosed mental health disorder are often reluctant to disclose their illness for fear of encountering discrimination driven by misinformation. By installing initiatives that “help employees recognize their risk factors and symptoms and equip them with the knowledge of how to seek treatment for their illnesses,” you can increase general understanding of mental illness to create a more welcoming environment for both those who currently struggle with mental health disorders or are at risk of mental illness as well as their colleagues. This may include providing brochures and posters addressing symptoms of mental illness and highlighting treatment options, mental health awareness workshops, and on-site, confidential mental health screenings.

Training Management in Mental Health

Talking about mental health in the workplace can be an intimidating prospect for both employees and for managers. But as Judy Gerstel points out in The Globe and Mail, “with one out of five workers experiencing mental illness, and more education and openess about it, managers are increasingly expected to assume an active role on the frontline of mental health in the workplace. It’s no longer a matter of leaving it to the human resources department.” Formal training by mental health experts can allow managers to identify mental health concerns, initiate conversations about mental illness, understand employee rights, connect employees to appropriate resources, and facilitate leaves-of-absence and return to work plans.

Sophie Water, who has participated in Bell Canada’s mandatory three-hour mental health training, believes such initiatives are essential to creating a positive environment in which people can get the help and support they need. “Employees feel safe because they know we’re all trained and not biased,” she says. “We are working from facts about mental health and that makes the perfect welcoming approach for employees to raise their hands and talk about these issues.” Not only does this give managers the skills they need to address serious mental health concerns when they do arise, but it also allows them to be proactive to decrease stigma and promote good mental health on a daily basis. “We’re not just waiting for a mental illness problem to come up. All the time we’re educating, facilitating, encouraging employees to participate in seminars and read articles, so we’re always aware of mental health and tools for dealing with these issues.”

Accounting For Mental Health

The fast pace and high pressure of the modern workplace can be stressful even for the most mentally healthy amongst us. For people who are struggling with mental illness, it can greatly interfere with psychological wellness. By creating policies and practices that promote a healthy work-life balance, you can bolster mental health amongst all employees while providing targeted support for those living with mental health disorders. According to CMI, “You should be aware and proactive in ensuring your teams are not overworking, and sacrificing quality time with their family and friends.” This includes being mindful of workload, setting realistic time and production-based expectations, encouraging employees to take the breaks and leave to which they are entitled, and proactively intervening before someone takes on too much. “When risk factors are identified, you should discuss reducing individual workloads, introduce flexible working, or prevent staff from replying to emails and calls after office hours, etc.”

For people with existing mental health disorders, both short and long-term accommodations should be openly discussed on an ongoing basis to ensure that employees are able to structure their work in a positive way and access the resources they need to fortify their mental health. This is particularly important for people considering going to or returning from residential mental health treatment, which often requires substantial leave from work. In fact, the prospect of an extended leave is one of the most significant barriers to residential mental health treatment, as employees worry that seeking the care they need will compromise their professional status or their livelihood. However, such treatment can be instrumental in restoring psychological tranquility and ensuring that an employee is able to work up to their potential in the long-term. By providing appropriate accommodations for leave, work return, and ongoing health, you can optimize employee wellness and ultimately strengthen your team.

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“I Can Finally Say I’m in a Good Place”

Colleen’s blog post is a testament to the difference a workplace can make on the lives of people with mental illness. “In my previous jobs, I know that my mental illness has affected people’s perception of me,” she writes. Whereas the outward symptoms of her mental health disorder—her messy hair, her mismatched clothes—acted as a barrier to both success and personal happiness at other companies, at Kitestring she fits right in.

I can say coming to Kitestring was a breath of fresh air. No one seemed to care that my hair was untamed or that I wear comfortable sneakers that look good with absolutely nothing. I came to work, and I worked hard. They didn’t seem to look down on me for being quirky. It gave me a chance to focus on improving as a web developer and to get to a place where I’m much better for them and me.

Accounting for mental illness in the workplace, after all, isn’t an issue of compromising professionalism and productivity, but acknowledging that different people need different resources in order to do their best work. By creating an environment which is accepting of difference and accommodating of each individual’s needs, Colleen’s employer gives her the opportunity to be at her best both personally and professionally.

After struggling for a while, I can finally say I’m in a good place. I’m even in a routine where my hair is a bit tamer. I’ll never not have a mental illness, so I think my hair is always going to be a little wild. But I love my hair, and I love my job, and I especially love my work family.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us for more information about our innovative program and how we can help you or an employee start the journey toward healing.

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