This article was first published in Fast Company on May 4th, 2016.
By one recent measure, companies are now pouring over $70 billion a year into corporate training in the U.S., an investment that’s been growing at record rates in years following the recovery from the last financial crisis.
But there’s one area that most of those resources will barely touch: mental wellness. That’s despite growing evidence of a serious need for employers to step up and take better care of their employees’ mental health.
The U.S. has one of the highest rates of mental health disorders, from mood and anxiety disorders to attention deficit and hyperactivity issues and substance abuse. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated that some 43.6 million Americans ages 18 and over faced a mental illness in 2014, and that at any given year, 27% of U.S. adults will experience some sort of mental health disorder. In fact, the average American has an almost 1 in 2 chance of having a mental health disorder over their lifetimes.
Historically, businesses have preferred to see these concerns as issues between patients and doctors. But many of them are deeply intertwined with employees’ working lives, and the relative absence of employer-driven mental wellness can make even modest efforts see outsize business impacts.
A CLEAR BUSINESS CASE
Mental health and addiction currently saddle employers with an estimated $80 billion to $100 billion annually in direct and indirect costs. Yet research shows that investing in the mental well-being of employees can increase productivity, creativity, and engagement while significantly lowering rates of absenteeism and disability.
In addition, the sheer amount of time spent at work—these days, an average nine hours and counting—makes the office the ideal place to address issues of mental wellness. So why aren’t workplaces being more proactive?
“Despite the ROI potential, most employers remain reluctant to engage in the type of effective dialogue on mental well-being that would actually let them create these benefits,” says Jodi Butts, executive director of Rise Asset Development, an organization providing low-interest small-business loans, training, and mentorship to entrepreneurs with a history of mental health or addiction challenges. “Many managers recoil from discussing mental health because they harbor mistaken ideas about it.”
Tackling mental health in the workplace can seem daunting, but here’s how to start to change the status quo in your organization.
ADJUST YOUR VIEWS ON WORK
“One hurdle is traditional thinking on the employer-employee relationship, which frames mental health as a private matter that has no place in the public workplace sphere,” Butts adds.
“However, the most up-to-date thinking on this topic teaches us that workplaces are really just a matrix of relationships that closely resemble families. With that mind-set, it’s much easier to understand how it’s both necessary and sensible to engage in discussions about mental health in the workplace”.
Leadership and inclusion expert Ritu Bhasin, whose book The Authenticity Principle will be released in early 2017, agrees. “Research demonstrates that the ability to bring your authentic self to work plays a key role in creating a strong organizational culture, which is reflected in higher levels of employee engagement and satisfaction.”
That’s something many companies already recognize, even if they don’t yet see it as a mental health insight. But as Bhasin explains, “There is a strong connection between authenticity and mental well-being. Employees who cannot be authentic in the workplace and feel like they have to ‘put on a mask’ while they’re on the job can experience adverse mental health side effects, such as absenteeism, exhaustion, or burnout.”
Most workplaces approach mental health reactively—they’ll offer support only at the point at which a problem becomes obvious or clearly disruptive. However, it’s far more effective to proactively create an environment that cultivates well-being. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Start an honest conversation. Raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of depression, addiction, and anxiety disorders.
- Cultivate mental wellness champions at all levels of your organization, not just in the HR department.
- Look beyond official policy and programs. Consider how both direct and indirect initiatives on mental health can boost employees’ psychological well-being.
JUST START TALKING
For many companies, it’s that first bullet point that’s often the biggest stumbling block—for many of us, just talking about mental health is uncomfortable, and all the more so at work. To make it easier, go beyond the org chart. Rather than relying on line-reporting relationships, ask the people in your organization with high emotional intelligence and empathy to get involved with leading these conversations, even on an informal basis.
And when it comes to these discussions, don’t overplan. An overly scripted conversation on a subject as sensitive as mental health is likely to be dismissed as so much well-meaning but ultimately empty HR blather. The idea is to cultivate a natural dialogue.
Finally, champion everyone’s contributions. Every company will find ways to address mental wellness in their own ways, reflecting the diversity of their workforces. Autism activist Temple Grandin advocates celebrating successes resulting from these differences. In a TED Talk she calls on organizations to “emphasize how many really creative people, people whose books we love, whose movies we love, their arts, have had a lot of problems with depression.”
Shifting our mind-set on mental health and the workplace can have a profoundly positive impact on individuals and organizations alike. The research is clear: It’s a change that’s long overdue and urgently needs making, but hopefully it’s one whose time more companies will finally begin realizing has arrived.
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