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Mental Health in the Workplace: 5 Ways to Support Your Employees

 By Sue Aberholden

A silhouette of a person's head looking down and sad on a black background.Most of us experience stress. It might be work deadlines or a conflict with a co-worker. It might be personal problems such as worrying about how to pay bills. It could be stress due to a major incident such as a death in the family. And then there are the day-to-day problems like being stuck in traffic.

Let’s face it — stress is part of life. But when stress becomes a chronic problem for an employee in your city, that’s when you as the employer might need to step in to help.

Stress can be a good thing; it can help us focus. But feeling stressed all the time is bad for our physical and mental health. It can affect our sleep and digestive system, and suppress our immune system. It can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety.

Chronic stress can also impact our ability to do our jobs well. When we’re constantly stressed, we might have problems remembering things, concentrating, or using good judgement. We worry about what could go wrong and see everything in a negative light. We can become impatient and argumentative. We probably are not as productive as we should be.

More common than you think

In the workplace, there are employees experiencing chronic stress and employees who are living with a mental illness. One in five people will experience a mental illness during his or her lifetime, so it’s quite common.

It’s not that everyone living with a mental illness will be a low-performing employee. It’s more likely that people who are not addressing their stress or their symptoms of a mental illness will simply not reach their full potential on the job.

The big question is what can employers do to address and support employees who are facing these issues? The answer is — a lot. Here are five ways employers can help:

  1. Promote good mental health.
  2. Change attitudes toward people with mental illnesses.
  3. Know the common symptoms of mental illnesses.
  4. Learn about accommodations.
  5. Create a workplace that fosters respect and acceptance.

1. Promote good mental health.

To help promote good mental health, it is important to talk about it and share information to help raise awareness.

For example, some employers place information about their employee assistance program and local mental health resources on bulletin boards or in employee newsletters. Let employees know that mental illnesses are common, and they aren’t the only ones who may be struggling with one.

It’s also a good idea to talk to employees about self-care. Healthy eating, having a good night’s sleep, exercising, and connecting to others are all good habits that will help relieve stress and promote good mental health. Beyond that, encourage employees to set technology boundaries and to take time off from work when needed.

There are also many tools available that can help you meditate, learn mindfulness exercises, or do other activities that can help reduce stress. Educate employees about such tools and encourage employees to use them.

And there’s one other very important step you can take as an employer: If you offer health insurance to employees, make sure it provides coverage for treatment of mental illnesses. Health insurance should include a wide array of mental health benefits, including depression screening, mental health crisis services, and more.

2. Change attitudes toward people with mental illnesses.

Studies have shown that the best way to change attitudes toward people with mental illnesses is for people to share their own stories. If they feel comfortable doing so, it can be helpful for managers to share their own struggles with their mental health. That will send a strong signal that mental health is as important as physical health.

There are plenty of negative attitudes toward people with mental illnesses, which makes it hard for people to seek treatment and to share with their employer that they are struggling. For many years, we talked about the “stigma” of mental illnesses. But in reality, it isn’t the stigma that is holding people back — but the fear of discrimination.

Many people worry that if they share that they are experiencing symptoms and are being treated, they will be denied promotions or raises or may even lose their job. Be sure that employees understand that will not happen.

Discrimination is real, but we all have an opportunity to change that mindset and encourage people to seek help.

3. Learn about accommodations.

Most accommodations for a mental illness are inexpensive and easy to implement.

Here are a few examples:

  • If an employee is having difficulty concentrating, encourage him or her to use noise-cancelling headphones or take more frequent and shorter breaks.
  • When possible, have a walking meeting.
  • Walking while you meet makes it easier to talk about problems — and it boosts endorphins in the brain, which leads to feelings of contentment.
  • If an employee is having trouble completing tasks, show him or her how to use tools in Outlook and other programs that can help prioritize and track items more efficiently.
  • Provide instructions in different ways — oral or written. This can help someone who is having difficulty remembering.

4. Know the common symptoms of mental illness.

While you should examine how to reduce stress in the workplace, you might also want to look at how to increase awareness about the symptoms of chronic stress and the symptoms of mental illness. They are quite similar.

Symptoms of depression include inability to concentrate, anger, and changes in sleeping or eating habits. Symptoms of anxiety include excessive worrying and negativity.

It is also extremely important to know the warning signs of suicide and to know what to do. We all can learn how to save a life. There are evidence-based trainings available — such as the one-hour QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) — that everyone should take.

5. Create a workplace that fosters respect and acceptance.

Doing all of the above will help you create a respectful and accepting workplace. And it’s worth it for you to create such an environment in your city.

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Addressing stress and poor mental health in the workplace leads to improved productivity, increased loyalty, and increased satisfaction. Don’t ignore it — learn about signs and symptoms and what you can do.

For more information, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Minnesota, website at http://bit.ly/nami-mn.

Sue Aberholden is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Minnesota. Contact: sabderholden@namimn.org or (651) 645-2948.