Ways to Improve Mental Health at Work

Without mental health, there can be no true physical health.

So said Dr. Brock Chisholm, the first Director-General of the World Health Organization. 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. Equally, 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).

In short, mental and physical health are deeply intertwined. As well as promoting the physical health of their staff, employers should also seek ways to improve mental health at work.

Mental health in the workplace is finally getting the attention it deserves. The global economy loses about USD $1 trillion dollars per year in productivity due to depression and anxiety. Leaders are now realizing that improving mental health in the workplace is of utmost importance. 

Alongside our physical well-being, 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 the necessary treatment or it puts a heavy financial burden on them after they do. This might cause them additional stress, worsening their mental state. By implementing mental health strategies and solutions, the workplace will become more productive.

Your employees don’t check their mental health at the door when they arrive at work. Poor mental health and stress impact 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. Our emotional, psychological, and social well-being all contribute to our mental health. These factors have an impact on how we think, feel, and act. They also influence how we deal with stress, interact with others, and make decisions.

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, and finding more ways to improve mental health at work that can be promoted amongst employees.

Here are some strategies and ideas to improve mental health in the workplace.

Measure Mental Health Companywide

Due to the stigma 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. This is why the first step toward improving mental health in the workplace is empowering employees to talk about it.

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 a companywide self-assessment. It’s a great way to help individuals gauge how they’re doing in different areas of their lives, including their mental health. Companywide self-assessment programs, among other ways to improve mental health at work, are a huge boost to employee morale.

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. From the collective score, the organization can assess who could benefit from mental health resources immediately. Then, targeted strategies and ways to improve mental health at work can be launched 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 them. That is why formulating ways to improve mental health at work should also be a part of their responsibility.

According to a study performed by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, 43% of employees would like to receive more support from senior management and human resources. Hence managers should be trained to recognize the signs of job stress and provide employees with strategies to work through it. Fortunately, 63% of managers that participated in the research would like to receive better training to deal with distressed employees.

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. Unfortunately, over 450 million people suffer from a form of mental illness, and approximately 400 million do not receive the necessary treatment.

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. By having solid ways to improve mental health at work, leaders can act accordingly and extend much needed help. However, it is equally important for them to approach these conversations with respect and sensitivity.

Remove the Barriers

When finding ways to improve mental health at work, you have to tackle it at both an individual and an organizational level. If you train individuals on how to become more resilient, but the root cause of their stress stems from their workplace, it will be difficult for them to stick with it.

“Embarrassment, shame, and weakness” are common descriptors of how people feel when forced to discuss their mental health in the workplace.

If managers and leaders want healthier, happier, and more productive employees, they need to seriously think about improving mental health in the workplace. Sure, a company’s culture cannot be changed overnight, but several adjustments may be taken now to help address this issue. Companies may create a supportive culture of transparency about mental health in their workplaces with dedication and patience.

Consider bringing in an outside consultant or a wellness coach 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.

If your staff cites “excessive collaboration” as a major impediment to meeting deadlines, and this has caused stress in the workplace, this means that you have to listen. Some decision makers hold down progress and project completion, making staff feel as though they are perpetually at a standstill. 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. That is why it is very important to establish ways to improve mental health at work. Set up resources to help improve mental health at work, make them readily available to employees, and make sure everyone knows about them. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years. By making mental health resources readily available, your employees can get help far quicker than that.

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. EAPs are one of the best ways to improve mental health at work, since they address a broad range of issues that might be affecting your employees’ mental and emotional well-being. These issues may include stress, grief, family problems, and psychological disorders.

EAPs are typically paid for by employers, and their services are frequently accessible not only to employees but also to immediate family and other household members. Aside from helping in improving mental health in the workplace, EAPs are excellent resources that can assist employees in coping with challenges that are interfering with their ability to attain their full potential.

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 of the greater puzzle that makes up who we are.

Employers will also benefit financially from finding ways to improve mental health in the workplace. Studies show that well-designed wellness programs have an ROI of $1.50 to $3 per dollar spent over a two- to nine-year timeframe. Another survey also found that more than 60% of employers said workplace wellness programs have significantly reduced their organizations’ health care costs.

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. Employee engagement through coaching is one of the effective ways to improve mental health at work.

Stress management programs

According to the American Institute of Stress, only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance. This is why annual company-wide stress management programs can teach employees about the nature and origins of stress, the impact it has on their health, and skills they may use to help moderate stress, such as time management or relaxation exercises.

You can also teach them about mindfulness, which is being present at the moment and following a healthy lifestyle by taking pauses. Also, make sure that the program is held during business hours. It will be more accessible — and less daunting — 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, since it is also one of the great ways to improve mental health at 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. However, finding ways to improve mental health at work should always be one of the organization’s priorities.

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 company wide meetings.

Talking about mental health will help to destigmatize it — and the treatment of it. It is also very important to take action by finding ways to improve mental health in the workplace.

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 it otherwise.

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