How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

“Without mental health, there can be no true physical health,” Dr. Brock Chisholm, the first director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), famously stated. He was a psychiatrist who strongly believed that our mental health and our physical health were undeniably intertwined.

Now, there’s data to back it up.

People with depression are at higher risk of other medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.

It goes the other way around, too.

When our physical health suffers, it impacts our mental state. Depression is common among people with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, coronary heart disease, or rheumatoid arthritis, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Our mental health also influences our financial health. Among mental health and substance abuse disorders, depressive disorders are the most costly ($71 billion). Individuals with a mental illness are also less likely to have health insurance than those without one. As a result, the cost for help either prevents people from receiving necessary treatment or it puts a heavy financial burden on them after they do. This might cause them additional stress, worsening their mental state.

Your employees don’t check their mental health at the door when they arrive at work. Poor mental health and stress impacts their job performance and productivity, engagement, and even everyday functioning.

On the other side of the mental health continuum, positive mental health can also influence other aspects of our lives — as well as our ability to thrive.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, positive mental health allows people to:

• Realize their potential
• Cope with stress
• Work productively
• Make meaningful contributions to their community

Now that we know mental health impacts every aspect of our employees’ lives — including their work — how can we help to improve it?

It starts by making mental health an organizational priority.

Here are some strategies to help you do just that.

Measure Mental Health Companywide

Due to the stigmas surrounding mental health, employees aren’t likely to come forward to their bosses when they’re struggling. Out of the 50 percent of employees that reported having a mental health issue, only one-third actually told their employer about it, reported the Society for Human Resource Management.

It’s not easy to talk about your mental health at work — or anyplace else for that matter. You need an approach that allows employees to check in on their own mental health, without singling them out.

Consider deploying companywide self-assessments. It’s a great way to help individuals gauge how they’re doing in different areas of their lives, including their mental health. Through our Flourishing Assessment, employees can find out how they’re doing, based on the six domains of “human flourishing” (validated research by Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). One of those domains is “Mental and Physical Health.”

Based on their self-reported answers, employees will be given a “Mental and Physical Health” score. This allows you to see collectively, “Who could benefit from mental health tools and resources right now?”

You could then launch targeted strategies to reach those employees by location, job type, team, and more.

Train Managers to Detect the Signals & Be Knowledgeable About Your Company’s Mental Health Resources

There’s a broad continuum of “mental health” — and not everyone on it has a mental health condition. Maybe an employee is going through a difficult season in life, while another employee has been diagnosed with depression. For the first employee, the season may eventually pass, while the second employee has found themselves stuck in a more persistent down cycle.

Employers aren’t expected to know the difference between an employee going through a challenging life event and those with major depression. Nor are managers expected to be counselors and therapists. They do, however, have an organizational responsibility to recognize when their people are struggling and provide resources to help.

Managers should be trained to recognize the signs of job stress and provide employees with strategies to work through it.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness also provides common warning signs for mental illness that employers can share with their team members, in order to help them spot red flags in themselves or their loved ones — and seek help from a mental health professional.

It’s not just recognizing when employees need help, however. Managers and supervisors should also be aware of the resources and support offered by their company, in order to point employees in the right direction. It’s equally important for them to approach these conversations with respect and sensitivity.

Remove the Barriers

To improve mental health in the workplace, you have to tackle it from both an individual and organizational level. If you train individuals on how to become more resilient, but the root cause of their stress stems from their work environment, it’s going to be difficult for them to persevere.

Consider bringing in an outside consultant who can help you build a company culture that promotes mental health. This can also help managers and executives understand how outside factors, such as excessive workload or conflicting expectations, can weigh heavily on their employees’ mental health and job performance.

Once organizations get honest about their company culture and can identify these barriers, they can help to either remove them or train employees on how to work through them, in order to alleviate employee stress and empower people to perform at their best.

As an example, let’s say that your employees cite “excessive collaboration” as a major barrier to hitting their deadlines — and a major cause of workplace stress. A certain amount of collaboration is, of course, necessary at work. However, too many decision makers can slow down progress on and completion of a project, making employees feel as though they are always at a stand-still. Supervisors spend an average of eight hours sending, reading and answering emails — many of which never should have been sent to or addressed by them, points out Eric Garton, a partner at Bain & Company’s Chicago office.

To help remove this barrier, consider creating an org chart for big projects. Who should be involved, what role should they play and who should they report to with updates? If the CEO isn’t on that chart, they shouldn’t be copied on the emails.

Connect People to Resources

It’s easier to accept help when we don’t have to seek it out ourselves. Establish resources to help improve mental health in the workplace, make them readily available to employees, and make sure everyone knows about them.

Some of the resources that might help your employees include:

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) – A voluntary, work-based program, EAPs offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. They address a broad range of issues that might be affecting your employees’ mental and emotional well-being, including stress, grief, family problems, and psychological disorders.

Holistic well-being programs – It’s easier to work on your mental health if it’s part of a larger program that your entire company already participates in year-round. Holistic well-being programs that address mental health also help to destigmatize it. They don’t treat mental health struggles as a separate “problem” that only some of us experience. They treat it as a critical piece to the greater puzzle that makes up who we are.

One-on-one coaching – Employees who actively participate in your company’s well-being program might want to dig deeper. One-on-one coaching is a great way to identify the barriers impacting their mental health — and find ways to break through them.

Stress management programs – Annual, companywide stress management programs can teach employees about the nature and sources of stress, its effect on their health, and skills they can adopt to help mitigate stress, such as time management or relaxation exercises. You can also teach them how mindfulness (being in the moment) and lifestyle (taking breaks) can help to mitigate stress. If you hold the program during business hours, it can make the program more accessible — and less intimidating — for everyone.

Stress-relieving spaces at work – Many hospitals have “healing gardens” with meandering paths, greenery, birds, fountains, and benches, which allow patients and employees to find solace on difficult days — and even great ones. Establish and protect these spaces so that people have a physical place to go when they notice stress signals in themselves.

It’s also important to consider how you might connect your employees with the resources they need outside of work.

Make Professional Treatment More Accessible

It’s estimated that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment, according to the NIMH.

What’s standing in their way?

It’s often related to the high cost of mental health care and insufficient insurance coverage, as well as the social stigma surrounding mental health treatment. Employers are in a unique position to help their employees address these barriers to care.

Create a culture where it’s OK to talk about how you’re doing — how you’re really doing — at work, including mentally and emotionally. Encourage your executives to lead the charge, which opens the door for everyone else. Maybe your CEO sends out an email about why mental health is a personal and organizational priority. Or maybe your executives openly talk about the steps they take to maintain or improve their own mental health during companywide meetings.

Talking about mental health will help to destigmatize it — and the treatment of it.

Additionally, you might consider offering mental health support with low or no out-of-pocket cost to employees. This could include covered services by insurance, as well as virtual care technologies.

By making mental health treatment acceptable and accessible, you’ll be helping employees seek help who wouldn’t have otherwise.


Discover more strategies to improve the mental health of your employees in our webinar.