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Mental health was already a crisis before COVID-19, but the pandemic has taken it to another level. In the first year of the pandemic, 25% more people began suffering from anxiety and depression — so much so that experts now urge doctors to screen all working age adults for these conditions. It's clear that employers must step up if they want to both address employee health and continually increasing costs. Employers have the power not just to acknowledge trends — but to actively work towards changing them.
As employers wrestle with the uncertainties of an evolving economic and labor market, it’s also clear that mental health support is critical to recruitment, retention and productivity. Post-pandemic, employee expectations around mental health support have changed. Now more than ever, it’s imperative to have an employee mental health strategy.
Here are five ways to help your business promote mental health in the workplace as presented by Dr. Aaliya Yaqub, chief medical officer at Thrive Global and Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade, during a recent webinar — Making space for workplace mental health: Where do employers go from here?
As employers begin to recognize the breadth of mental illness challenges in the workplace, collecting data and interpreting insights can help them strategize how to help their employees. By leaning into the data, employers can individualize a population health program down to the specific nuances and needs of their workforce. For example, tech companies with a young workforce might approach this differently than a service company with employees closer to retirement.
Employers should be intentional about creating a workplace experience to reduce the stigma of mental illness. They should ensure managers have messaging to help destigmatize mental illness and expand mental health across benefits and care packages, tapping into virtual mental health coaching, mindfulness and other self-service tools.
“Training managers and leaders [demonstrating] empathy and vulnerability is a big part of this,” stated Dr. Yaqub. “If they’re able to share their own life experiences, it gives other people permission to express themselves in that way, too. It destigmatizes mental health as a weakness,” she added.
The positioning of benefits is important. You can have mental health benefits, but if the company culture is not one where employees feel like they can access those benefits without judgement or retaliation, then those benefits are not nearly as effective as they can be.
Here are some ways to ensure you’re creating an environment where people feel like they can talk about their mental health:
Utilize webinars and team meetings — then you can talk as a group rather than calling out one individual person
Understand not all mental illnesses are treated equally
Lead with empathy
Look at how you’re positioning your benefits
“If you ask people if they want a coach to help them with stress, but you don’t label it as a mental health support tool, they might happily partake,” recommends Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade. “And in the course of using that tool, you might identify that folks are screening positive for depression. That’s an opportunity to get someone into therapy without the labels and stigmas that come with mental well-being,” he added.
Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the conditions of a person's life that may impact their access to quality, equitable care. SDOH are broad and can include things ranging from the environment where people live and work, their age and economic circumstances, or discrimination regularly faced by people in their cultural group. SDOH can impact a wide array of health, disease risks and quality of care, and can include:
Education quality and access
Healthcare quality and access
Environment and neighborhood
Social and community context
SDOH are at the heart of inequalities and inequities of healthcare. “Just because you have healthcare insurance through your employer, it doesn’t mean you’re able to use it or that you have the knowledge to use it,” Dr. Yaqub explains. Employers impact many of these social factors, including where their employees live, their income, career mobility, and what kind of access to family and childcare support they have.
In the context of mental health benefits, barriers to care associated with some SDOH — for instance income level, history of care or educational background — can be compounded by their intersection with stigmas already associated with mental illness. In these cases, working to address the stigma of mental illness isn’t enough. The healthcare system and its stewards must also address SDOH to achieve desired health outcomes.
It’s necessary to provide preclinical support for mental healthcare. This means focusing on preventative measures. “For example, it’s saying that we can prevent a certain percentage of depression and anxiety relapses. We can prevent people from developing chronic and cumulative stress, which we know has a terrible impact on their overall health but also impacts their ability to function and be productive,” Dr. Yaqub shared. This can be done by providing employees with tools and education around mindset and behavior changes. If we give employees the tools they need to change their behavior, then we can disrupt stress when it’s acute.
But not all stress is bad. Every single human on the planet experiences stress, and we need a certain amount of stress to be motivated and get things done. However, when we don’t have a way to disrupt the stress and stop it in the moment, it becomes cumulative and chronic. By focusing on the mindset and beliefs in helping employees correct that, we can make small changes in their day-to-day to reduce their stress.
Some practical ways to manage stress are:
Hang reminders around the office to pause, breathe and move throughout the day
Go for a walk — instead of a Zoom meeting, promote walking meetings
Encourage employees to take their paid time off
It’s important to view mental health as part of your employees’ physical health — not separate. By utilizing a collaborative care model that aims for concurrent treatment of mental health issues with physical conditions, employers can tie mental healthcare more holistically to their benefits plans. This ensures companies care for the entirety of their workforce’s healthcare needs.
Employee mental health should be an important priority for employers. Mental health can have a critical impact on attitudes, productivity, and ultimately, financial success. Despite the critical role that work plays in our lives, many of us lack access to necessary resources for healthcare and overall wellness.
Fortunately, employers can make a huge difference in employee wellbeing by taking proactive measures to prioritize workplace wellness. Work should be more than just a place where employees come every day to do their job —it should also provide them with an opportunity to be their most authentic self while accessing the resources they need to thrive mentally. Watch this webinar to learn more about how you can make space for workplace mental health.