May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, with various organizations calling attention to the importance of our mental health, both to us as individuals and collectively as a society. To me, the term mental health encompasses our overall emotional and social wellbeing. It relates to how we think, feel, act, and interact with others.
Surely the last extraordinary year of the coronavirus pandemic has shone a renewed light on the importance of mental health, a beacon to let us know that mental health means more than the fact that one in five people annually are affected by a diagnoseable mental health condition. (Sadly, and incredibly in a rich nation and despite advances in therapy and medications, less than half of those affected are getting effective treatment.) The last year has taught us that the other 4 in 5 – the ones who don’t have a diagnoseable mental health condition – have also had their mental health challenged by the disruptions of the last year. We have all been affected by the stress of enforced social isolation and disruption of our usual ways of coping, as well as the many other effects of the pandemic. Hopefully, this increased awareness of how mental health is an aspect of life for all may mark a shift in how businesses approach this sensitive issue.
Employers are learning of the impact of mental health on their businesses
In my role at Espyr I get to interact with an increasing number of employers who are interested in supporting and improving the mental health of their employees. These are employers who don’t just talk: they act. They act not just because it’s the right thing to do. But as good business managers, they understand it’s good for their businesses too. They also realize the importance of work in our lives and that the workplace can be a place for productive change. They understand that, like it or not, employers share a lot of the burden that comes with poor mental health. Here are some positive themes I’ve seen in these employers and that I hope others will emulate.
Employers facilitate connections among employees
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was rampant. More than 4 in 10 adults reported feelings of loneliness. (See my blog Social Isolation and Loneliness.) Despite spending so much of our lives at work, many people reported that they didn’t consider co-workers to be their friends. This attitude affects employee engagement and teamwork and thereby the workplace’s overall productivity. The shift to remote work has only made this challenge harder. Progressive employers recognize this and are doing something about it. They survey their employees to get their input about their workplace culture. They create cross-functional teams. They assign mentors at new employees’ onboarding. They create activities that promote the importance of healthy workplace relationships. Leaders model these behaviors.
Employers facilitate healthy communication and learning
They know that employee engagement is enhanced by good communication. They use communication to equate mental health with physical health. They are not afraid to talk about mental health and personal wellbeing. They counter societal messages that mental health conditions are a sign of personal weakness.
Employers are engaged with and invest in their assistance services
They understand that employer-sponsored assistance programs for employees (or on campuses, for students) provide invaluable early and easy access to effective treatment services for the 1 in 5 mentioned above and provide a range of services for the 4 in 5 whose mental health can be supported and strengthened. They understand these services pay for themselves while boasting morale and productivity (See my recent blog Employee Assistance Program ROI Validated Again.)
This May, while National Mental Health Awareness Month reminds us of the importance of mental health, here are 3 advocacy actions I hope employers will accomplish or begin in their workplaces to help mental health professionals like me and organizations like Espyr to support and elevate mental health awareness.
- Educate your leadership, managers, and supervisors about the early signs of mental health issues – ones that are recognizable in the workplace – and why that recognition is important to assist the affected employees and support your business. Challenge them to become aware of their own attitudes about this sensitive topic and how their attitudes will either be helpful or detrimental to others they lead.
- Educate your employees that taking care of their mental health is as important as their physical health and that their employer recognizes this and supports them. Give them opportunities and resources to build resiliency and to engage assistance when needed.
- Advocate and help your work organization understand that employee mental health is a legitimate business issue. One that has too long been overlooked and undervalued. That it has a place at the table – it’s just as much a “normal” business issue as is employee health and safety. Teach your organization that mental health impacts its healthcare costs, retention and turnover, quality and productivity, employee morale, conduct and behavior, and workplace safety and violence prevention.
Here are some additional resources if you would like to learn more about mental health awareness activities that you can employ in your workplace:
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
The Mounting Crisis of Mental Health
Willis Towers Watson
May is Mental Health Month Toolkit
Center for Workplace Mental Health
American Psychiatric Association Foundation