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How to support employee mental health from every level of the firm

Zoom yoga is one great way to boost your mental health.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Zoom yoga is one great way to boost your mental health.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

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Whose job is it to care for employees’ psychological well-being?

On a fundamental level, it’s up to employees themselves. “Therapy, medicine, meditation, whatever that may be—that’s something that needs to happen at the individual level,” says Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that advises companies on supporting mental health in the workplace.

But for many people, this is harder than it used to be. Those of us working from home are working more—an additional 2.5 hours per week on average—than we were before the pandemic. Those who have to report to a physical location for work might be stressed about the risk of exposure to Covid-19, or at the prospect of bringing it home to family members. In either case, many employees have lost touch with co-workers who previously provided “weak tie” friendships, which have a profound effect on our happiness despite their superficiality. And without many of the typical means to relieve workplace stress, like going to the gym or seeing friends, we are more likely to turn to less healthy coping strategies, such as substance use.

“People are not taking the time to engage in self care, not setting healthy boundaries around exercise, not maintaining healthy relationships at home with friends and family, not taking the time for hobbies. That’s time away from things that would help them relax,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, the director of the nonprofit Center for Workplace Mental Health.

There’s a lot that employers can do to help, whether they’re shaping company policy or just being a little more human.

Let’s break it down in terms of what company leaders, HR departments, middle managers, and conscientious colleagues can do to support mental health in the workplace.

What company leaders can do to support employee mental health

Offer great mental health benefits. Having all the pro-mental health programming in the world won’t help employees if a company’s benefits package doesn’t allow them to get the care they need. This includes making therapists easily accessible through employee assistance programs (EAPs) as well as things like addiction treatment programs. It also means giving people space and time to mind their mental health. According to an October 2020 study from US insurance company The Hartford, 56% of American workers don’t feel comfortable seeking mental health treatment during the work day, even when their employer thinks it does a great job supporting employee mental health. “Employers, if you’re saying it, be able to back it up with action,” says Lisa Frydenlund, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Foster a culture of openness about mental health. “Companies that have excellent mental health benefits don’t usually see high usage rates, and people feel shame about going to therapy during the work day,” Mind Share’s Greenwood says. “Destigmatize that conversation, have leaders speak up about it so people can feel that permission to take care of themselves and seek help if and when they need it.” Companies can even register with the National Alliance on Mental Illness as being certified “stigma-free”.

“The more that leadership communicates the importance of healthy boundaries, getting help when you need it—the more employees hear that, the better,” Gruttadaro says. “It’s great to show that it’s a priority for leadership.”

If C-level leaders don’t have their own experiences or aren’t comfortable sharing, they can “show up in an ally capacity,” as Greenwood says, perhaps talking about loved ones who have struggled with mental health challenges but have overcome them. “They should show that you can be successful at this company while managing a mental health condition,” Greenwood adds, noting the importance of stating that there will not be professional repercussions for those who do choose to disclose any mental health conditions.

Allow for as much flexibility as possible. We know flexible work hours help parents, particularly women, stay employed. But companies can think about flexibility in another way: What absolutely has to be done now, and what can be pushed back? Departments that work with clients may not have as much flexibility, but for those that rely primarily on internal deadlines, how could these be loosened? “Do associates need to be pulling all nighters for internal deadlines? Most likely no,” Greenwood says. “This is inclusive flexibility.” Also, she reminds us, “everyone probably needs something different than they did last year,” so communication between employee and manager is vital.

Ask people how they’re doing. It’s a simple—and powerful—question. But an April 2020 survey by Greenwood’s Mind Share Partners and Qualtrics found that one month into the pandemic, 38% of people said their employer had not asked them

“Gone are the opportunities in the days where you could just walk by someone’s office, check in, and feel good about how things are going. You’re not going to have the same kind of experience. In fact, you are leading a workforce that is out of your sight most of the time,” says Tsedal Neeley, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

Employee surveys can provide a good litmus test, and employee resource groups (ERGs) can provide a natural place for check-ins. It doesn’t matter if the ERG “focuses on environment, culture, and wellbeing—you don’t have to call it a mental health group, as long as you get to the heart of how we are really doing,” Gruttardo says. This group can then report back to the company about how people are really doing, and can make suggestions for changes.

What HR executives can do to support employee mental health

Use numbers to advocate for more resources toward employee mental health. “If leadership is not willing to do what you believe is right for the organization, there’s only so much [HR professionals] can do,” says Frydenlund. Instead of giving up, she says, focus on how you can make the case differently. “What’s going to motivate change for this individual? Often it’s the bottom line. Look at retention, look at talent acquisition, at worker’s comp, at the reputation of the organization—what’s the cost?” she says. “Many times, people want a quick fix. That’s now how life is, and what’s worth working for takes time.”

Hire a chief connection officer. This person would be focused on company culture, particularly useful as more companies embrace remote work. But of course even companies that can’t afford a new, full-time executive can learn some lessons from the fact that the role exists elsewhere. “Do all organizations have the capacity to hire a chief connection officer? No,” Frydenlund says. “But they should still be thinking about how [connection] becomes woven into the culture. It should be a part of a mission, a vision, a strategic plan.”

What middle managers can do to support employee mental health

Lead with empathy. “Managers are on the front line, they see employees over time. If they share their own vulnerabilities, whether it’s a kid throwing a tantrum or a real mental health condition, that goes a long way,” Greenwood says. Employees are much more likely to go to their manager than to HR with an issue related to their mental health, she adds, so it’s important to create a psychologically safe space for those conversations.

Have a real talk with your direct reports, and don’t assume. This goes for colleagues, too. If you’ve noticed that an employee’s behavior has changed and wonder if their mental health might be suffering, there’s a right way to broach the subject. “We encourage people to lead with curiosity but not make assumptions,” Greenwood says. “Often the symptoms for mental health challenges present similarly to other things,” Greenwood warns. You could say, as Greenwood suggests, “I’ve noticed this concrete thing at work, are you doing ok?” According to Greenwood, “pairing those observed statements with open-ended questions is the right way to go. You never want to force someone to disclose a physical or mental health challenge.” It’s also helpful to be familiar with your company’s policies so you can direct them to find outside help if they ask for it.

How to support your own mental health in the workplace

Check in with yourself and ask for what you need. No matter how great your company’s culture or benefits are, your first line of defense is you. “We all, as individual employees, have some responsibility” for our own mental health, Gruttadaro says. That means being aware of what we need in the workplace to stay healthy and well, and then asking for it. If your workplace doesn’t offer what you need, you can try to change things, advocating to your manager or company leadership or HR or ERG. Or you can find a new job that can better help you get what you need.

Keep reaching out to colleagues. “We know that even having a little bit of contact with others, and not even necessarily members of our own teams or groups or units, we will feel reconnected with our organization,” Neeley says. It’s easier to do that at jobs that are even occasionally in person. “There are some [work] cultures where spending time with others is an important mechanism by which the culture operates. All of that has to be actively built into the virtual work environment,” Neeley says. Ideally this can take a slightly more structured format than just a Zoom coffee—maybe it’s a weekly mentor chat, or even a cohort you check in with periodically.

Remember you don’t have to tell anyone anything. Employees are not under any obligation, legal or otherwise, to disclose their mental health challenges to an employer—in fact, Greenwood doesn’t advocate for widespread disclosure: “It’s really not safe in a lot of workplaces.”

The future

The experts interviewed for this story agreed that mental health has now joined the workplace conversation, and there’s no going back. “I believe employers have made a commitment to workplace mental health that existed before the pandemic and will only grow once we’re back to somewhat normal,” Gruttadaro says.

Additional reporting by Lila MacLellan.