The next business innovation won’t start with a piece of code or a new product. It will start with how leaders approach mental health in the workplace.

Let’s Talk Mental Health

With nearly one in five American adults experiencing a mental health issue, chances are, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, that you’ve worked, are working, or will work with some who is living with a mental illness. In spite of this prevalence, stigma still accompanies the topic, causing underreporting and general employee unease when asked about mental health. In a recent poll about topics employees felt they could discuss with their work colleagues, a mere 13% of respondents cited mental health – placing it at the bottom of the list of ten topics, which included financial problems, religion, sex, and divorce.

And yet, we can’t afford to not talk about mental health. The effects of mental illness in the workplace and inaction on the issue continue to drive not only healthcare costs, but also immense productivity losses, for employers. An employee experiencing serious depression, for example, accrues $6,252 more annually in healthcare costs than a symptom-free employee. Additionally, some experiencing depression misses between 6 and 25 more days per year on average and suffer from impaired performance between 13% and 29% of the time at work.

What’s an Employer to Do?

Given that we spend 60%of our waking hours at work, employers are uniquely positioned to make a meaningful impact on their employees’ mental health. The business case for mental health has never been stronger, and we are here to show employers the value in transforming their workplace’s approach to mental health.

At One Mind Initiative at Work, our next project will provide a roadmap for employers to jumpstart the conversation on mental health. While employer goals can vary from mental health awareness, to mental health self-evaluations, to interaction guides for managers and employees, we advocate five best practices for starting successful workplace mental health initiatives.

1) Lay out the plan: Regardless of the type of employer program, a clear and concise plan overview outlining key messages and end goals should be distributed prior to implementation. Upon reading, an employee should both understand and buy into the program.

2) Explain how to implement: Regardless of plan quality, providing directions is imperative for ensuring follow-through. A sequenced implementation guide with checklists and a timeline for the facilitator – be it the CEO, HR head, front line manager, or employee – is a must.

3) Provide employee-friendly material: We’re sure you’ve seen them: employee toolkits or tutorials with a labyrinth of assessments, activities, and materials to sift or click through. An employee already has one full-time job; don’t make comprehending materials another one. Provide resources that have clear and succinct messages.

4) Consolidate resources: Centralize all information in one location designated solely for mental health matters. This is particularly important if employees are receiving many brochures, info sheets, or other collateral through the initiative.

5) Refer to further help: Some employees will truly appreciate a workplace mental health initiative and want to go the extra mile for either personal use, or with others in mind– be at the ready for them with expert resources. While employers may not be mental health specialists, they can connect employees with organizations who are.

While these best practices might seem self-evident, their significance cannot be overstated: they make mental health accessible by laying out clear steps and tangible resources.

Pioneering Workplace Mental Health

In 2017, we collected key insights from conversations with HR and benefits leaders at thirteen major US employers. Topics covered included the leaders’ overall perceptions of the mental health field, current approaches and best practices in mental health promotion, and the most significant challenges in the area. We identified two broad trends:

1) Employers are interested in adopting effective programs and already have some policies in place, but

2) HR and benefits leaders are concerned about barriers to implementation, such as stigma, network gaps, and provider shortages.

From examples given in the interviews, we compiled best practices in workplace mental health policies, which included: integrating mental and physical health care; developing employee wellness toolkits and apps; providing programming; and building a workplace culture that is aware of mental health and encourages EAP usage. These valuable lessons will inform our future efforts in this field, which includes a second interview series with additional employers. 

One Mind is excited to be a new contributor at Thrive Global – not only to provide fresh insights into how leadership can transform workplace mental health, but also to contribute to Thrive’s broader mission: catalyzing a culture shift that prioritizes sustainable productivity and well-being.