Today is World Mental Health Day and my inbox and social media feeds are full of quotes, messages and articles about the importance of recognizing and treating mental health disorders. But just like the pesky cold virus, mental illness doesn’t ever take a break—and it shouldn’t be relegated to annual reminders.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness—and the numbers look the same for Canadians, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, which states that “one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.” This means that whether you realize it or not, there are likely members of your workforce who struggle with a mental illness.
Employers play a key role in the welfare of their workforce—simply because much of a worker’s waking hours are dedicated to their job. More often than not, full-time workers have access to mental health care through their employer.
The great news is that more and more organizations are providing mental health coverage for their workers. Today, 87% of U.S. organizations and 79% of Canadian organizations offer mental/behavioral health coverage for workers. This is up from the 69% of U.S. employers and 40% of Canadian employers that offered these types of initiatives in 2014, according to the 2019 International Foundation Workplace Wellness Survey. Similarly, more employers are also providing substance abuse treatment coverage for workers (73% of U.S. organizations and 41% of Canadian).
[World Mental Health Webcast Today! Suicide Prevention: What About the Workplace | October 10, 2019]
The expansion of these benefits means more and more people have access to mental health resources. However, even though individuals have access to mental health resources, many in need do not take advantage of them. There are many reasons for this, including time, availability of providers and cost. The stigma surrounding mental illness (along with the worry that getting help may affect their job) may be another factor preventing individuals from getting the appropriate help.
Promoting mental health year-round does not have to be expensive or difficult. Here are six things employers can do to help their workforce:
1. Provide and Promote an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
Employee assistance programs may be one of the most underutilized employee benefits. According to the International Foundation Mental Health and Substance Abuse Benefits survey, 83% of U.S. organizations and 86% of Canadian offer an EAP to workers. However both countries report that less than 10% of employees actually take advantage of the program. This underutilized benefit typically provides a wide array of services.
Some of the most common services included in a typical EAP include:
- Referral support
- Mental health assistance/counseling
- Substance abuse assistance/counseling
- Crisis hotline.
Because EAPs are so underutilized, employers may need to make a concerted effort to remind workers about the resource. When asked how its organization increased EAP usage, a large U.S. employer responded “[We] issue monthly health and wellness newsletters with EAP services articles and include reminders about the EAP in annual open enrollment materials.”
2. Provide Mental Health First Aid/Crisis Training
Mental Health First Aid Training is designed to help managers and co-workers identify and react to an employee in a mental health crisis, and it is more common among employers. In the U.S., just 15% of organizations currently offer mental health first aid/crisis training, but this number is up sharply from 2015 when only 3% of organizations provided this benefit. Mental health first aid is more common among Canadian employers—31% currently offer it, up from 17% in 2014.
[Related Reading: Organizations Report Mental Health Offerings on the Rise]
3. Include a Mental Health Assessment in Health Risk Assessments (HRAs)
Including mental health assessments as a part of a health risk assessment helps to identify individuals who need help, as well as sends a message that the organization takes the workers’ mental health seriously—helping to destigmatize mental illness.
In the U.S., 35% of organizations included a mental health assessment as part of their health risk assessments, a 55% increase compared with 2014 rates. In Canada, 26% of organizations included a mental health assessment as a part of their HRAs, up from 15% five years ago.
4. Offer Meditation Sessions at Work
Organizations are turning to old techniques to help employees reduce stress by offering meditation and mindfulness classes on site. This year, 23% of both U.S. and Canadian organizations offer this benefit, compared to only 3% of U.S. employers and 10% of Canadian employers five years ago.
About a year ago, the International Foundation began offering meditation/mindfulness sessions to employees. Offered three times a week for 10-15 minutes each, workers listen to a guided meditation (often played from a meditation app). Those who attend the sessions have found them very helpful. One of my co-workers said, “My mornings can be pretty hectic. I like the mindfulness sessions because they help me feel calmer and shift my perspective, which makes the rest of the day go smoother.” Providing workers with a chance to meditate is a simple and low-cost practice that can have real impact.
5. Help Workers to Manage Stress
Finances; balancing work, family and life; traffic; round-the-clock news cycles . . . these are just a few of the sources of stress workers inadvertently bring with them to work every day. Add job-related stress to the mixture and it is easy to understand why 72% of U.S. employers and 76% of Canadian employers reported that stress was one of the top issues negatively impacting worker productivity. Additionally, 59% of U.S. organizations and 51% of Canadian felt that their workforces had unhealthy levels of stress.
Employers are trying to help workers deal with stress by providing on-site mental health education sessions and by offering programs that focus on stress management and resiliency.
6. Move Around
Exercise is not only good for your physical health, but it does wonders for your emotional well-being as well. In a recent survey, employers told us about their most successful wellness initiatives. Many respondents reported that their most successful initiatives promoted exercise. Here are a few examples:
- “We have 56% of our workplace participating in this challenge. (It is) free to join, anyone can do it. We provided pedometers to people who didn’t have step trackers. We have individual goals and group goals based on people’s average step count per day.” – Midsized company in the U.S. Midwest
- “For 15 years we ran a half-marathon for the entire community to participate but also as a way to promote our organizations wellness footprint “ – Midsized public employer in Saskatchewan
- “Our spring and fall two-month walking challenges ‘to a destination’ with fitness trackers paid for by the organization.” – Midsized corporate business in the U.S. South
- “Our most successful events would be our various sports tournaments. That is where we get the best ROI.” – Large company in the U.S. West
- “Any program where we tie discounted Fitbits and have a walking challenge gets great participation.” – Large public employer in the U.S. Midwest.
Of all the initiatives shared by organizations, my personal favorite came from a multiemployer located in the northeast region of the U.S. who holds an annual “Dodgeball series.”
Learn More About Promoting Mental Health
For more information on mental health benefits, check out these two International Foundation reports:
- Workplace Wellness Trends: 2019 Survey Results
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Benefits: 2018 Survey Results