How and Why to Support the Mental Health of Your Employees

Odds are high your workforce includes people like me living with mental illness. Some of your best employees might be dealing with unseen mental health issues. Supporting the health of these workers is a win-win for both employers and employees.

The signs of mental health conditions may be noticeable—or not. People often take pains to mask symptoms of mental illness out of fear of judgment and discrimination.

How and Why to Support the Mental Health of Your Employees

How many adults experience mental illness?

A lot. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 4.5% of U.S. adults age 18 and over experienced a serious mental illness in 2017. This did not include those with substance use disorders.

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found 7% of Canadians age 15 and older experienced a mental health-related disability in 2017. This included those with substance use disorders.

What do you mean by serious mental illness or mental health-related disability?

NIMH defines a serious mental illness as a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability defines people with a mental health-related disability as those who experience limitations in their daily activities because of difficulties with an emotional, psychological or mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, anorexia, etc.

[Free Report for Members: Mental Health and Substance Abuse Benefits: 2018 Survey Results]

Can people with mental illness work productively in a regular job?

Oftentimes, yes. Employers and employees alike need to realize these conditions can be treated and symptoms can be managed. Someone whose untreated illness may lead to impairment is often unimpaired with effective treatment.

Why would an employee let a mental illness go untreated?

Although stigma associated with some common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety is gradually fading, it is still a major obstacle for people with less common mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Sometimes people don’t recognize or won’t admit to themselves that they are living with a mental illness because they think it means they are weak or inferior. Many people, whether or not they live with mental illness, don’t realize that a lot of symptoms can be managed with medical and professional assistance. Often, people affected live productive, healthy lives that look like anyone else’s.

[On-Demand Webcast: Creating Psychologically Safe and Healthy Workplaces in the United States and Canada]

Why should we support our employees dealing with mental illness?

When employees dealing with mental health issues feel valued, supported and respected, all employers and employees can reap the following benefits:

  • Increased employee satisfaction and loyalty
  • Increased quality and production of work
  • Increased revenue
  • And most importantly, decreased risk of employee suicide.

What about medical costs?

Employers that sponsor group health plans can realize a reduction in overall medical costs when a condition is well managed. Their health plans will experience:

  • Fewer emergency department visits
  • Fewer hospital stays
  • Fewer preventable health care expenses caused by employees neglecting or damaging other aspects of their physical health (this can be a symptom of some mental health conditions).

How can our organization help employees feel supported, respected and valued?

Start by cultivating an open, friendly workplace where people feel safe talking about mental health issues if they want to. Strive for a workplace culture that discourages shaming and belittling and instead promotes teamwork and respect. Employees watch company leaders—Workplace culture trickles down from the top. Effective leaders know this and treat all employees with genuine respect.

Although I can’t speak for others, here are some ways I believe leaders can support those of us who are managing mental health conditions:

  • Believe in us. We can do a good job when our symptoms are managed well.
  • Let us know we and the work we do are valued.
  • Maintain your expectations for quality and productivity in the workplace. We don’t want to be held to lower standards than others are.
  • Let us know you care. It can go a long way when a leader asks somebody (privately) how they are doing and says, “Let me know if there’s anything we can do to help.”  

And…

  • Don’t pity us.
  • Don’t call us out.
  • Don’t distance yourself from us.

I have received absolute support in my workplace from top leaders on down in managing my mental health journey. My gratitude toward my employer runs deep. I have told many friends and family how my leaders and other coworkers support, appreciate and respect me. They say it sounds like I work at a great place, and they’re right.

Resources for Supporting the Mental Health of Employees

Here are some resources for understanding, supporting and talking about mental health:

Lois Gleason, CEBS
Lois Gleason, CEBS
E-Learning/Online Course Instructional Designer at the International Foundation

CEBS

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