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How to Promote Mental Health at Work: A Definitive Guide

Over half of the world’s population is employed, and a concerning 15% of them suffer from mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, emotional distress, insomnia, and more. 

These disorders can lead to lost productivity, human error, absenteeism, substance abuse, and financial losses. Mental health issues cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year, largely due to reduced productivity.

Mental health disorders are particularly worrying when they impact workers in skilled professions, such as airline pilots, commercial vehicle drivers, and operators of heavy machinery. This is due to the characteristics that mentally ill workers in these industries can exhibit, such as aggression, hostility, impulsiveness, disregard for laws, and more – all significant risk factors for accidents.

Fortunately, many mental health conditions are preventable, and much can be done in the workplace to support employees who are vulnerable to mental health disorders or have existing mental health conditions.

Read on to understand more about how to promote mental health at work and foster a healthy, safe, and productive work environment.

Recognizing the Signs of Mental Health Issues

The importance of mental health in the workplace has taken on greater importance in recent years. In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization (ILO) called for concrete actions to address mental health concerns in the working population: 

“As people spend a large proportion of their lives in work – a safe and healthy working environment is critical. We need to invest to build a culture of prevention around mental health at work, reshape the work environment to stop stigma and social exclusion, and ensure employees with mental health conditions feel protected and supported,” said Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General.

Given that early recognition is key to successful outcomes, those who work closest with employees play a key role in enacting any organization’s mental health policy and providing workers with the support they need. However, managers and supervisors may find it challenging to identify signs of mental health issues due to the stigma and isolation often linked with such disorders.

That’s why workplace mental wellness programs need to include training for supervisors on recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

In a work environment, someone dealing with mental health challenges might show these signs:

  • More frequent or unexplained absences from work
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Unusual errors or lapses in performance
  • Heightened levels of anxiety
  • Reduced motivation or disengagement from work-related tasks
  • Difficulty meeting deadlines
  • Occasional bursts of anger or irritability
  • Shortened temper
  • Symptoms of excessive drinking or hangovers
  • Avoidance of social interactions

If a supervisor detects any of these signs of mental health issues in the workplace, it’s time to start a conversation.

The Role of Leadership in Mental Health Advocacy

Leadership providing mental health support in the workplace

To ensure the health and well-being of employees, leadership buy-in and involvement is crucial. 

Managers and supervisors who have direct interactions with employees should take the lead in implementing the organization’s mental health initiatives and policies, while also cultivating a supportive and inclusive atmosphere.

A survey by The Workforce Institute at UKG found that 69% of workers said their manager had the greatest impact on their mental health, surpassing even that of doctors and therapists. Interestingly, 60% rated their manager’s impact on par with that of their spouse.

Nevertheless, managers often shield themselves from their employees’ mental health challenges. They might hesitate to start a conversation due to a lack of confidence or concerns about overstepping privacy boundaries. Moreover, supervisors might be dealing with their own stressors, leaving them with insufficient time, drive, or energy to intervene. In some cases, they might even be contributing to the problem. Indeed, a difficult boss is one of the leading causes of mental health issues in the workplace.

Employers can address this problem by educating managers on how to spot signs of mental illness, engage employees who are struggling, and provide them with the support they need.

Here are some recommendations for implementing mental health training for managers.

Implementing Mental Health Training for Managers

Training for managers regarding mental health should include the following topics:

  • Clarifying the company’s policy on mental health and well-being in the workplace.
  • Understanding how a supervisor’s actions can affect the mental health of employees.
  • Identifying signs of mental health disorders among employees.
  • Developing a better understanding of workplace stressors and job-related factors that impact mental well-being, such as micromanagement, performance expectations, long hours, heavy workloads, autonomy, lack of supervisory support, etc.
  • Learning how to be an accessible, attentive, and compassionate leader.
  • Enhancing interpersonal skills, including effective communication and active listening.
  • Knowing how to connect employees with resources and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), including counseling and stress management services.
  • Understanding the importance of confidentiality. Under federal law, employees with mental health conditions are protected against discrimination and harassment in the workplace, have rights to confidentiality, and are entitled to reasonable accommodations to help them perform their job duties and maintain their employment.
  • Receiving training in crisis management and conflict resolution to effectively respond to serious incidents such as workplace violence or suicide.

Creating a Supportive Work Environment

Employee taking a relaxing break, promoting mental health at work

Creating a positive and supportive workplace can help reduce mental disorders and promote employee well-being. Such an environment encourages social connections, self-care, and accommodations for individuals facing mental health challenges. Here are some practical changes to consider in workplace policies and culture:

  • Review health insurance policies and programs to include mental health resources and programs.
  • Solicit employee feedback or host focus groups. Ask for their views on company health and wellness policies and invite recommendations. 
  • Allocate funds for mental health and well-being initiatives. 
  • Integrate mental health into occupational health and safety programs.
  • Launch an employee mental health awareness campaign or organize mental health days or weeks one or twice a year.
  • Provide flexible work arrangements, such as virtual or hybrid work models and flex schedules.
  • Promote team-building activities to encourage relationship-building and engagement among employees.
  • Offer opportunities for growth through training, mentoring, and career advancement pathways.
  • Adapt the workplace to accommodate individuals coping with mental illness, including providing extra time for tasks, modifying assignments to reduce stress, allowing time off for counseling or medical appointments, regular one-on-one meetings with supervisors, and managing absences.
  • Establish a return-to-work program that combines work-directed care with ongoing clinical support after an absence due to a mental health condition.

For more suggestions, read our Comprehensive Guide to Effective Wellness Program Ideas

Encouraging Open Conversations About Mental Health

As many people in the workforce experience mental health challenges, they must understand they’re not alone. They should feel that the workplace is inclusive and a secure environment where they can openly discuss their mental health, knowing that support is accessible.

Open, judgment-free discussions about mental health are key to alleviating and removing stressors in the workplace. Workers should know they are not alone and that their employer understands the stress and mental challenges they are experiencing. Employers and supervisors should reassure workers that they are open and empathetic to discussions about work-related mental health and able to provide access to coping resources.

Supporting Employees Struggling with Mental Health

Supporting employee mental health at work

Supervisors and HR managers can make a difference when it comes to helping workers with mental health issues. 

For instance, if an employee exhibits symptoms of mental illness, employers should show empathy and find out if the worker needs help. This assistance might involve lightening their workload, prioritizing tasks, adjusting deadlines, or providing room for the employee to take time off. 

Importantly, employers should listen without passing judgement, avoid using negative language about mental health, and acknowledge the impact it may have on the employee’s work and personal life. 

Discussing mental health can be challenging. Employers must honor the employee’s privacy and readiness to open up. If an employee is hesitant to discuss their mental health, supervisors can suggest exploring options like EAPs and other available mental health resources.

Injecting positive comments about the employer’s work and a willingness to continue the conversation is also critical.

To help employers gain confidence in talking to employers about workplace mental health and stress, check out these getting started guides provided by OSHA for senior managers and front-line supervisors

Activities and Programs to Improve Mental Health

According to the UGK survey, mental health is so important in the workplace that 81% of employees worldwide would prioritize good mental health over a high-paying job and 64% said they’d take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness. Meanwhile, a study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 81% of survey respondents said that employers’ support for mental health is an important consideration when looking for work.

When such support is offered, employees find it beneficial. The APA study found that 94% of those who say their employer has people on-site who have received mental health training feel this support is effective. 

Clearly, employers would do well to address and articulate their policies on mental wellness in the workplace. 

While many activities and programs can positively impact mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. The most successful programs prioritize identifying the stressors associated with a particular job, industry, or workplace and taking practical steps to remove or reduce them.   

A few firms that have invested time and money in mental wellness programs are cited in this article by Johns Hopkins University and include Unilever, the consumer products company behind brands like Dove, Hellmann’s, and Ben & Jerry’s, and international management consulting firm, Oliver Wyman (a business of Marsh McLennan). Their programs are inspirational:

Unilever is actively supporting its employees’ mental health through several initiatives. It has trained 4,000 global staff members as “mental health champions” to recognize signs of mental health struggles and refer colleagues to appropriate professionals.

Moreover, Unilever is a founding partner of the Global Business Collaboration (GBC) for Better Workplace Mental Health, advocating proactive measures to foster a positive mental health culture. They empower employees to prioritize mental well-being, offer resources, and transparently measure their impact to inspire change within and beyond their organizations.

Oliver Wyman provides round-the-clock professional counseling services to employees free of charge and designates “Recharge” days where offices are closed, allowing staff to disconnect. Additionally, Oliver Wyman has formed a global wellness Champion Network to offer mutual support among workers and has partnered with organizations like the City Mental Health Alliance and This Can Happen to advocate for workplace wellness.

Leveraging Technology for Mental Health Support

Digital technology can help shape workplace mental health solutions and programs. Tools and applications that promote mental health and resilience in the workplace include:

  • Self-assessment tools. Mobile apps provide a quick and easy way for employees to assess their mental health and be connected to personalized support, including exercises and therapists.
  • Apps and wearable devices that track moods, emotions, activities, and heart rate. Several tools allow employers to anonymously aggregate data to inform findings about trends in stress levels, such as during busy times of the day or month, and intervene accordingly.
  • Well-being apps that help users reduce stress, improve mental awareness (e.g. the “why” behind their stress), and offer coping strategies.
  • On-demand EAPs that provide app-based and virtual mental health coaching, therapy, and clinical services.

Conclusion: Making Mental Health a Priority at Work

Companies have more opportunities than ever to promote mental health in the workplace. And the benefits are significant.  

WHO estimates that for every dollar U.S. employers spend treating common mental health issues, they receive a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. Indeed, employers can make a major difference when it comes to helping their workers prevent and manage mental health and well-being.

That’s why Acuity offers a comprehensive suite of one-stop occupational health and wellness services – delivered on-site or wherever and whenever your business needs them. 

To ensure successful outcomes for workers and employers, we also offer behavioral health and mental health case management services, including mental health screening, advocacy, education, non-medical counseling, treatment plans, fit-for-work and return-to-work evaluations, assistance with workers’ compensation, and more.

Performed in compliance with OSHA, HIPAA, and other regulatory standards, we help employees take the first step towards making better health and wellness decisions and give employers an occupational health, productivity, and financial advantage.

Learn more about our comprehensive care services or contact us today.

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