Mental Health at Work: It’s Time for Openness and Acceptance

Three steps recommended to begin building a culture of mental health support

“Mental illness is the single greatest cause of worker disability in the United States.”
– National Alliance on Mental Illness

As startling as this fact may be, it was further exacerbated over the last two years by the pandemic, which has had disastrous effects on the mental health of our population and employees. It's one of the reasons why there needs to be a concentrated focus now on mental health in the workplace. Our experience as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider to hundreds of businesses has helped us identify some of the most common roadblocks to addressing mental health in an effective manner.

Two Main Obstacles

First, most employers have limited access to data regarding the specific impact mental health is having on company productivity. Frequently, the effects are masked by physical conditions or are underreported due to the stigma that continues to surround mental illness. Employees are often reluctant to share information about their emotional well-being which then results in a lack of awareness of resources and a reluctance to seek help.

Employers may also feel that offering an EAP program is enough as opposed to implementing a more comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying culture of the company. Real workplace solutions involve a shift in mindset from crisis intervention to prevention and acceptance of the importance of emotional wellness. To achieve this transformation, an employer must be ready to integrate mental health information into every level of daily operations; thereby, normalizing mental health and reducing the fears associated with seeking help.

The Link to Productivity

The facts clearly show how much the mental health of workers can impact their employers. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, there are more workers absent because of stress and anxiety than due to physical illness or injury. Absenteeism has obvious significant impacts on productivity and creates a huge cost burden for the employer because of unemployment, disability, and decreased performance.

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation and its Center for Workplace Mental Health reports the total economic burden of depression alone is estimated to be $210.5 billion per year, representing a 21.5% increase over the last 10 years. Nearly half (48%-50%) of these costs are attributed to absenteeism (missed days from work) and presenteeism (reduced productivity while at work).*

Reversing Mental Health Stigma

Employees seem to comfortably talk about their physical ailments with colleagues, saying, “I had the flu last week,” or “Sally is taking time off for a knee replacement.” We rarely hear from our colleagues about their failing relationships, bouts of depression, or debilitating anxiety because of their fear of being judged or viewed as weak or incompetent. In some cases, employees may have experienced discrimination, bullying, or rejection because of their mental health challenges. They may even fear losing their job if they reveal a mental health problem.

Reversing this stigma begins with a willingness to talk out in the open about mental health. Leaders, managers, and supervisors need to open up and share resources available to help employees care for their emotional well-being. This creates an atmosphere of safety and trust for employees who may be experiencing something similar. The goal should be to create a culture of acceptance to reduce the effects of mental health concerns in the workplace.

What are the Best First Steps to Take?

The following three steps are recommended to begin building a culture of mental health support.

  1. Train leaders, supervisors, and managers. Individuals in leadership roles have a considerable impact on company culture. Training management to respond and relate to employees who may be experiencing emotional distress is a great first step for all employers. Employees who feel supported and encouraged to seek help tend to be more productive and engaged at work.
  2. Increase access for employees. Educating employees about their EAP benefits or other community mental health resources is essential. This includes hanging posters in places where employees gather, sending out emails, and reminding employees about the help that is available to them during team meetings or one-to-one supervision. If your company has an EAP, make sure you understand all the services it offers, including consultation, training, counseling, and crisis intervention. EAP professionals are your most valuable resource for developing a new mindset.
  3. Weave acceptance into the culture. Look for ways to continually put mental health in front of employees. View every encounter with an employee as an opportunity to connect and create that culture of acceptance. Consider providing wellness incentives for individuals who participate in an EAP event or counseling session. Think about options you might have for supporting employees’ efforts at self-care. These may include encouraging lunch breaks, offering flexible work hours and time off to address mental health concerns, or quiet spaces for employees to recover from stress.


The help you need to support your employees

Crisis support, management training, or employee counseling. We are here when you need us.