As an employer, it is imperative that you take the proper measures to help your employees stay healthy, both physically and mentally. We spoke with human resource and mental health experts to learn why employee mental health is critical right now and what you can do to support your team.
What is employee mental health?
According to the World Health Organization, "employee mental health" is a blanket term for the psychological, social and emotional well-being of individuals in the workplace. The concept helps to define how an individual assesses their own environment, copes with stressors and external factors, and ultimately thrives or struggles in a workplace.
The WHO elaborates that work is often a source of positive mental health, but various workplace factors can turn a typical positive into a detriment. Employers should make conscious efforts to foster a positive environment that enriches its employees' lives and supports mental health.
Mental health risk factors in the workplace
To support mental health in your company and avoid the major pitfalls, you should understand what can positively or negatively change an employee's mentality at work. The WHO lists these major mental health factors for the workplace:
- Stress is far and away the largest risk factor in employee mental health. Deadlines, quotas and the many metrics for business performance can all induce stress in employees. While small amounts of stress are typical for a workplace, undue and excessive stress creates major risks that should never be ignored.
- Harassment and bullying are other major risks. The WHO has issued multiple warnings and provided resources to deal with workplace harassment. Harassment can take many forms, but the bottom line is that an employee feels antagonized at work.
- Poor communication is often cited as a source of workplace stress for employees. That stress can have poor mental health outcomes, sometimes even leading to clinical problems.
- Limited participation is another major risk. When employees feel they are not part of the decision-making process, they often feel isolated or underappreciated. These feelings contribute to poor mental health in the workplace.
- Poor working hours – whether too long, too inflexible or too late – create physical health problems in the workplace that can compound mental health risk factors. If a work schedule prevents an employee from getting proper sleep or sufficient social interaction outside of the workplace, it can create a negative trend for that individual's mental health.
The coronavirus and its toll on employee mental health
As companies have been forced to take drastic measures like pivoting their business strategies, laying off and furloughing employees, and even shutting down, employees have had to adjust accordingly, even as they deal with personal difficulties. With quarantine and work-from-home orders still in place in several states, many employees are feeling the emotional effects of isolation and confinement. A recent FinanceBuzz survey revealed that nearly half of employees report feeling isolated.
Although it is always important to support the mental health of your employees, it is especially critical now, as employees are experiencing an increase in mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression. Caroline Ogilvy, a licensed independent clinical social worker and behavioral health specialist at Firefly Health, said there was a threefold increase in depression and anxiety diagnoses among their Firefly Health patients within the first few weeks of the pandemic.
These mental health challenges are affecting many employees for the first time, which may be detrimental to your team.
"In the midst of such uncertainty both at work and in the world, employees who have never experienced significant mental health challenges may be experiencing it for the first time, and might be unaware of the impact anxiety and depression can have on their work," said Erika Ames, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker at Tailwinds Counseling.
Employee mental health is always important for both the employee and the employer in terms of performance and productivity; as a business owner, it is imperative that you heed the warning signs and support your team as needed.
What are the negative effects of ignoring employee mental health?
Unfortunately, mental health issues are often ignored in the workplace. According to Carla Yudhishthu, vice president of people operations at ThinkHR and Mammoth HR, many employers feel uncomfortable involving themselves in this intimate aspect of their employees' lives; conversely, many employees are hesitant to speak openly about their struggles, especially if their condition is affecting their job performance, or the stress of work is worsening their condition.
"The inability of an employee to openly discuss the challenges of mental health and well-being can contribute to a cycle of distrust and fear, where neither employers nor employees want to talk about mental health issues," said Yudhishthu.
It is important to eliminate this vicious cycle from your workplace, as ignoring employee mental health can result in problems for both you and your employees.
Negative effects for the employer
- It reduces trust between you and your employees.
- It creates an unsupportive, distrustful company culture.
- It can decrease employee performance and productivity.
- It may provoke a discrimination claim.
- It reflects poorly on your company and brand.
Negative effects for the employee
- It can decrease engagement, performance and productivity.
- It can increase mental health issues.
- The employee might not know whom to turn to for help.
- The employee might feel a need to hide their struggles.
- The employee might put themselves or their employer at risk.
How to identify and monitor employee mental health
Mental health challenges can arise at any time, especially during a crisis, so it is important that you consistently monitor your employees and ensure that they are doing well. You can evaluate your employees by setting up recurring check-ins.
"HR professionals should proactively reach out to their employees, checking in on how they are doing, and with a flexible lens, provide person-specific accommodations and education about employment policies that employees may benefit from," said Ogilvy.
Approach these meetings in a way that makes your employees feel safe and secure with sharing their struggles and asking for help. Be attentive when speaking with your employees. There are many warning signs that can indicate someone is struggling.
Ogilvy recommends looking for the following changes:
- Significant changes in one's eating or sleeping patterns
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Increased fears and worries
- Increased irritability
- Worsening mood (increased sadness, hopeless, decreased mood)
- Isolation or social withdrawal
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other substances
- Suicidal thoughts that occur or worsen
- Worsening chronic medical conditions
- Worsening chronic mental health conditions
- Decreased energy or increased fatigue
- Decreased performance at work
- Frequently missing work
How to support employees' mental health
You and your human resources team play a vital role in supporting employee mental health. It is your responsibility to create an inclusive workplace and provide the necessary support for your team. We spoke with experts to identify the top ways you can support your employees.
1. Educate your team.
Facilitating a supportive company culture starts with you, the employer. If you haven't done so already, host a companywide meeting to address the pandemic and how it can impact mental health. Educate your team on how to improve self-care, reduce workplace stress and avoid burnout. It can be beneficial to hire a health professional to speak about these topics and answer questions that employees may have.
"Hiring a mental health professional to talk to employees outlining practices to promote good mental health and to point out signs that it may be time to seek professional help can empower employees to take action toward improving their own mental health," said Ames.
2. Host regular check-in meetings.
Since mental wellness can quickly change, it is important to regularly check-in with your employees. After hosting a companywide meeting, Kara Lissy, clinical coordinator and psychotherapist at A Good Place Therapy, recommends that each department manager schedule one-on-one meetings with their team members. Here, the manager can discuss any follow-up questions the employee may have and review the company's mental health benefits in more detail.
"Sometimes during large team gatherings people are hesitant to speak up and are more likely to confide in a one-on-one setting," said Lissy. "Making mental health a regular part of your check-ins can also help assuage some stigma associated with the topic."
3. Encourage proper self-care.
Employees may be hesitant to take time off or speak up about any struggles they are experiencing. Promote the importance of self-care and lead by example so your employees focus on their mental health. Consider offering paid time off for mental wellness days or schedule team breaks so your employees can mentally reset.
"Provide a companywide set time for all employees to take a formal 'walk' together, assuming they can move, and the weather allows," said Yudhishthu. "This ensures everyone collectively takes a 30-minute physical and mental break without returning to 10 unread emails and Slack messages."
4. Facilitate clear communication.
Communication is key, especially during a time when many are working remotely. It is easy to fall into a pattern of "out of sight, out of mind," but having a remote team is even more of a reason to have clear, consistent communication. Communicate with your employees clearly and compassionately about your current company policies and mental health treatment options. If your employees have questions, know whom they can turn to for answers.
"In light of such unprecedented times, HR professionals can help ensure employees have the support they may need by offering regular, open and consistent communication with their employees," said Ogilvy. "Many employees are coping with feeling overwhelmed and anxious as they adjust to working from home, a location that may not be optimal for their productivity due to conflicting responsibilities."
5. Implement supportive workplace mental health policies and resources.
There are several mental health support resources available that you can offer your employees. For example, you should be offering your team an employee assistance program (EAP), bereavement leave, grief counseling, and a list of in-network network therapists, psychiatrists and mental health clinics.
"An essential benefit is an EAP, which gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for issues such as substance abuse, relationship strife, financial problems and mental health conditions," said Yudhishthu. "These services are offered through an outside provider that connects employees with the appropriate resources and professionals. These programs enable companies to provide professional assistance to employees while allowing them confidentiality at work."
Regardless of what mental health coverage and employee wellness resources you offer, make sure they are up to date and easy to access.
"Supporting mental health in the workplace empowers employees to do top-notch work and to balance personal well-being needs," said Yudhishthu. "It's your responsibility to create the strategy and foster the environment that enables that."