By Chris Eversole
January 10, 2023

Fostering workplace mental health

Leaders can implement these key steps to promote a culture of mental wellness.

If you sense that people are getting grumpier and more withdrawn, you’re right. Research on mental health challenges, especially anxiety and depression, shows a steady decline — even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the pandemic’s start, the prevalence of anxiety and depression among workers has risen 25% worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. A 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 4 in 5 employees reported high job-related stress. And 60% said it impacted them negatively, reducing their motivation and energy. 

These trends impact the workplace. Employees struggling with their sense of well-being are less productive, more likely to miss work days, and job-hop more frequently — taking their workplace knowledge with them. And consistent workforce churn is expensive.

Corporate culture counts

Employers can make a difference through policies that support mental health and reduce burnout. At the root, promoting workplace mental health stems from your corporate culture. Do you foster a caring culture full of trust? Or is your organization distrusting and indifferent to employee well-being? Chances are you’re in the middle, with both good aspects and room for improvement.

Business leaders are essential in ensuring a workplace promotes mental health and supports struggling workers, said Amy Edelstein, executive director of Inner Strength Education. 

“When employers take a few small steps, it creates an environment for staff to value their well-being and do what’s needed,” Edelstein said.

Steps leaders can take

Business leaders can take the following steps:

Be specific. When you tell employees you care about their mental health, get specific. “We expect people to take their vacation days” means more than a general statement, such as “we care about work-life balance.”

Build mental health into the workday. We all need breaks during the day. It seems to me that people take smoking breaks because they want to relieve their stress. Why not encourage employees to engage in stress-reduction exercises for up to 30 minutes a day?

You can have a “quiet room,” encourage workers to take walks, or offer group mindfulness classes. Eckhart Tolle, the author of “The Power of Now,” said starting a meeting with just a couple of minutes of quiet can help. Try it. You might like it.

These suggestions may sound like a luxury you can’t afford, but I guarantee your staff will make up for the time it takes for calming activities by being more focused and productive in the long run.

Get Mental Health First Aid training. This is an eight-hour course with a certified instructor that trains your employees about warning signs of mental health problems. It teaches effective ways to support people who are struggling — through role-playing and discussions of potential scenarios — and how to connect with professional resources and self-help groups. Students learn about warning signs of specific illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, substance use, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.

Establish and promote an Employee Assistance Program. More than 97% of large companies and 75% of midsize companies now offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). They provide an easy entry point for various mental health services, including short-term counseling and referrals to long-term help.

Unfortunately, fewer than 10% of employees with access to EAPs use them, often because they don’t know they have them or how to use them. If you invest in an EAP, promote it through onboarding and internal communications and reduce the stigma of getting help for mental health.

Trust employees. Time and attendance policies signal trust — or a lack of it. If employees aren’t exceeding the number of allowable sick or personal days per year, don’t ask them what they’re using them for. Knowing you can take a mental health day or use a sick day to care for a loved one without raising eyebrows reduces stress. Better yet, break down the barriers between vacation, personal, and sick days, and let employees take the time they need in the ways they need it.

Guard against entrepreneurial burnout. Research at the University of California San Francisco found that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely than the public to struggle with mental health. Anything you do for your employees’ mental health can also benefit yours.

As an employer, you set the tone for mental health in the workplace through your policies and actions. Establish clear, specific policies, and encourage your employees to take advantage of benefits programs and paid-time-off policies.

Take a positive approach. Focusing on mental health is not just about supporting employees when challenges occur. It also includes helping your team members find joy and meaning. One way to help them feel good about their workplace is to offer opportunities to learn new skills and advance in your organization.

In summary, promoting mental health includes addressing mental illness and encouraging positive interactions and attitudes.

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About Chris Eversole

Chris Eversole is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor candidate at Addiction Wellness & Counseling Center in Edmond. He holds a master’s degree in addictions counseling from the University of Central Oklahoma. He’s passionate about helping people become healthier in their relationships, their work and their lifestyle. Chris and his wife, Linda, have four children between them and four grandchildren, along with three small white dogs. Chris enjoys playing basketball with his buddies at Healthy Living OKC.