Eight Strategies for Addressing and Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

Workplace mental health struggles aren’t just a personal matter. Research shows they also financially impact businesses. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, unresolved depression costs the U.S. economy $210.5 billion in absenteeism, reduced productivity, extended leaves of absence and health care.

Mental illnesses can affect anyone, regardless of gender, culture, race, religion or socioeconomic status. A study in BMC Psychiatry estimates that 309 million people, or 4.4% of the world’s population, suffer from major depressive disorders.

However, stigma and shame keep many employees from reporting depression and anxiety, making it difficult for employers and employees to get the help they need.

By addressing mental health head-on, you can improve outcomes for your employees and your organization.

8 ideas

Leaders and HR officers are adopting new strategies to address mental health in the workplace. The following offer a blueprint to get started.

  1. Make mental health resources easily accessible

Early intervention helps employees tackle personal and professional issues affecting their mental health.

Providing direct access to mental health is a concrete first step. Options include telemedicine, live video telehealth and in-person behavioral health care services. You can also direct employees to mental health services available through community programs. Community resources may include mental health emergency centers, access clinics, youth and family centers, support groups and suicide lifelines.

An employee assistance program (EAP) is another way to increase access to mental health services. EAPs are work-based programs that often include free and confidential assessments, therapy, referrals and follow-up services. They are completely anonymous and voluntary. Many businesses offer EAP services to employees and their family members.

Accessibility sometimes means going the extra mile for employees. Some organizations have created anonymous portals for employees to reach HR or managers in times of distress. Others train managers on how to identify signs of anxiety and depression. Tact and empathy are essential. As you work to increase accessibility, make sure your managers know how to show compassion and kindness when referring an employee to mental health resources.

  1. Make employees comfortable taking time off

When an employee is feeling overwhelmed, taking time off work may be necessary. It should not bring them shame.

Supervisors can model healthy behavior by taking time off and encouraging their team members to do the same.

Say a manager notices an employee hasn’t taken a personal day in ages. The manager could point out the company’s benefits and remind the employee about work-life balance. The manager could also create a quarterly time-off reminder and team vacation schedule to encourage employees to use their vacation hours.

Managers and team leaders set the tone. When a leader takes time off, it reassures team members they can do the same. And openly talking about the importance of workplace mental health can empower employees to take necessary steps before they start to feel burnt out.

  1. Update your policies and practices

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more employers have adopted flexible work policies and practices. Updating rules around paid time off, work hours, remote work, communication and leaves of absence has become a common tactic to improve workplace mental health.

Giving employees control of their schedules is a proven way to enhance mental health in the workplace. One study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that allowing employees to change their schedules decreased their likelihood of job-related stress by 20%. And it increased their job satisfaction by 62%.

Offering flexibility isn’t the only way to combat work-related stress. Some businesses have also eliminated performance reviews or framed them as informal check-ins. This strategy serves dual purposes: It removes a stressful, disliked practice in one-off performance reviews. And it adds more opportunities for supervisors to communicate with and support their employees.

As you refine your policies, keep employees informed about the changes. Unknowns are a huge source of stress and anxiety for workers. And remember to clearly define employees’ duties and responsibilities. This removes the element of surprise and avoids unnecessary stress.

  1. Measure mental health

Accountability for your employees’ mental health is important, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

An occasional pulse survey can tell you a lot about how employees are doing over time. Surveys give employees a way to highlight their concerns. They also help managers better understand and address workplace stressors.

One-on-one meetings are another way to gauge employees’ mental health. Encourage managers to build relationships with team members, set goals, review performance, and do mental health check-ins.

Train managers to follow the four A’s of stress management:

  • Avoid. Avoiding stressors isn’t about skirting responsibilities or job duties. It’s about preventing burnout. For example, allowing employees to take time off when they’re overwhelmed helps them step away from stress and recharge.
  • Alter. If you can’t avoid stress, alter how you handle it. For example, if two employees are struggling to get along, move their workspaces to create physical distance. Or if a major assignment is stressing out an employee, break it up into smaller, more manageable tasks.
  • Adapt. Some stressful situations can’t be avoided or altered. In those cases, managers and employees must find ways to adapt. For example, managers can set reasonable standards to help employees with perfectionistic tendencies.
  • Accept. Managers and employees must accept that some things are beyond their control. That might mean allowing employees to vent their frustrations, but then refocusing on the things they can control.
  1. Offer mental and physical health benefits

Mental and physical well-being go hand-in-hand. With this relationship in mind, many companies take an integrated approach to addressing mental and physical health.

For example, some provide designated meditation and privacy areas. This gives workers a place away from noise and distractions. Even quick breaks can help employees recharge. Studies show that workplace meditation reduces stress, depression and burnout. Regular practice can also improve an employee’s attitude and job performance.

Offering free fitness, yoga or weight classes at the office is another way to improve employee morale and health. On-site classes give employees a chance to form social and emotional ties.

If you don’t have the space to host an on-site class, you can offer discounted memberships to clubs, gyms and mental health apps.

Whichever benefits you decide to offer, make every employee can easily understand and access them.

  1. Encourage employees to unplug

A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders showed a link between the number of hours an employee works and their risk of depression. Encouraging employees to have lives away from work shows you respect boundaries and value work-life balance.

A disconnect policy can help employees maintain that balance. This policy sets the expectation that employees should unplug after normal working hours. It also gives leaders and HR a chance to disconnect. Many times, when a manager stops responding to emails after business hours, employees do too.

  1. Recognize employees

Your employees are your greatest asset, so let them know they’re valued.

An employee-of-the-month program or an annual award ceremony can be meaningful, but formal options aren’t required. An email highlighting an individual or a team can make a difference.

The key is to be genuine. And don’t just recognize the superstars. Showing appreciation to employees in different roles and levels of your organization can improve morale and encourage everyone to take pride in their accomplishments.

  1. Be a supportive leader

Leaders set the tone for the workplace. A supportive leader tries to understand the needs and life experiences of others. Showing empathy creates bonds, increases understanding and improves communication. On the other hand, toxic leaders increase turnover, job dissatisfaction, anxiety and burnout.

Respect and empathy are requirements when addressing and supporting mental health in the workplace. Support for your employees should be applied at all levels of your organization.

Shifting perspectives on mental health

Employees have become increasingly aware of how their work life affects their well-being. A survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found 84% of respondents experienced at least one mental health challenge due to conditions in the workplace. And a survey by the American Psychological Association found 81% of workers wanted to leave their current employer for one that better supported their mental health.

As mental health and well-being take the spotlight, it’s critical to meet your employees’ needs with meaningful mental health resources, benefits and organizational support.

For help finding the right mental health strategy for your organization, contact your benefits adviser.

This content is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing professional, financial, medical or legal advice. You should contact your licensed professional to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.