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SIG U Roundtable – Mental Health in the Workplace: Is Your Organization Prepared?

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Author: Kara Reynolds

Panelists: Dr. Greg Hobelmann, Ashley Addiction Treatment; Mac Hobbs, BHS; Kerry Graves, NAMI Metro Baltimore

SIG U hosted a Roundtable discussing mental health and how best to approach it in the workplace. The panelists answered questions specifically around how to help employees in the area of mental health, what resources are available, and defining what a mentally healthy workplace looks like. Ashley Addiction Treatment is a facility that helps those in a wide variety of addiction recovery, overseeing in-patient to out-patient needs and more. BHS is a workplace wellness program that covers an extensive amount of wellness-related topics and helps those who want to implement wellness and sustain a healthy work environment. NAMI Metro Baltimore is a mental health organization raising awareness, as well as providing education and advocacy around mental illness.

Leaders must begin to address mental health in the workplace, as the awareness around mental health becomes commonplace. Many employees have expectations around what their employers can do to help in this area, whether that’s through EAPs, mentorship programs, or their benefits. The panelists discussed topics ranging from simple advice to handling more serious matters, emphasizing that all organizations can benefit from having a plan in place to handle mental health issues and develop a psychologically safe environment. Here are the seven key takeaways from this panel discussion and what it takes to become a mentally healthy workplace:

1. Workplace culture and climate determine workplace well-being

A mentally healthy workplace looks like one that cares about employees’ well-being. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach with involvement from both the top and the bottom. Not only do employees need encouragement to participate and engage, but leaders need to go beyond saying “I support this.” They need to get involved, whether that means participating in company-wide events that support employees or assist in making well-being offerings cover more than just physical health and nutrition resources.

2. You need an EAP in place

An EAP can be really helpful if it’s used well. Make it accessible to employees and make it worth their while. Usage is often determined by how well the offerings are communicated depending on what the specific needs are of the organization. Along with EAPS, organizations can offer other forms of support through tele-health, as tele-therapy and online counseling is becoming more available.

3. Workplace flexibility is essential

Thanks to technology, this isn’t as difficult as it once was. Though there are a variety of fields that could make it difficult for some organizations, workplace flexibility is much easier to implement than it used to be. Working remotely is an option for more employees, and when there’s a crisis or something that an employee is going through, it is extremely helpful for them to know that their job isn’t in jeopardy if time off is needed for counseling or personal management. Lastly, it’s recommended that sick days and mental health days be treated as the same, as they both involve aspects of our well-being. To make this clear, consider defining to employees what a “sick day” means, and include mental health status as a valid reason to take a day off.

4. Bring in outside resources

Education is a great way to get everyone on the same page when it comes to mental health. It begins to eliminate the stigma that can come with it and makes it safer for employees to open up about issues they may be dealing with. Though your co-workers don’t have to have an intimate knowledge of your personal issues around mental health, the more resources available and opportunities to learn, provide employees a language to use. Employees need the proper language to help communicate what could be going on, especially if there’s a specific need. Some organizations bring in a counselor, pastor, or others with experience handling mental health issues – these professionals could provide anything from a company-wide workshop to more private one-on-one counseling sessions.

5. Social opportunities create a mentally strong workplace

Creating trust in the workplace through social opportunities is a valuable asset for employees. It builds morale and gives everyone a chance to contribute to the workplace culture and climate. It is extremely helpful to use social opportunities to reduce the stigma around mental health, as well. If the workplace is where people spend a large amount of their time, they need to feel and know that they’re in a psychologically safe environment that doesn’t place high stakes on them bringing their “A-game” each and every day. Social connections make it possible for employees to have good and bad days (as we all do), and not feel pressure to pretend and wear a mask. A workplace culture that creates the “mask” mindset will ultimately perpetuate mental health issues. When there is a more serious situation in which an employee can’t sustain a certain performance level, they won’t feel safe to share their feelings and ask for help. It is essential that psychological safety and social connections, even if they are few, be taken seriously in the workplace – even made a priority.

6. Manager training is a must

Managers are usually put in a tough spot in this area, trying to walk the line between being an advocate of an employee, while having to answer to their leaders who may be more concerned with numbers and performance. Bringing up changes in performance is a great way to open up conversations with an employee who may be going through a mental health issue. Even managers having a way to monitor workplace engagement is a good way to track employee well-being, as they usually go hand-in-hand.

7. Not all mental health issues look alike

This is the trickiest part of handling mental health in the workplace. There is a difference between an issue that is continual, and a crisis that someone is going through that creates a temporary change. Both must be taken seriously and considered valid. Organizations shouldn’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and have policies and plans in place for either scenario. This way, employees will feel taken care of and supported. This sets an expectation amongst employees that ultimately requires good communication and trust between leadership and employees.

The workplace is changing, and mental health is becoming more valued and noticed. This is a change for the better. Many organizations and leaders can take simple steps toward creating a workplace that cares about mental health and helps their employees feel heard, seen and safe.