Want workplace wellness? Face your workers' mental health issues head-on

With regards to Mental Health Awareness Week, it's time to put a spotlight on an often overlooked issue in the workplace: Mental Health. In July, social media exploded after a software developer who suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder shared an exchange with her boss on Twitter. She had emailed him to say that she was taking a day or two off “to focus on my mental health.” In a response that went viral, her boss thanked her for her openness and wished her well.

Three trees shaped as human heads with varying amounts of leaves

Many of the responses to this story were shocking, as workers shared stories of open hostility, passive aggression and even threats of termination from their employers when they voiced their need to take time off for mental issues.

This story highlights an unsettling double standard about wellness in American businesses. They routinely offer employees benefits such as smoking cessation, gym memberships, Zumba classes, lunchtime yoga, you name it.

But they’re not so good at dealing with subtler—but no less lethal—mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and grief. This doesn’t have to be the case. There are proven ways to keep a workplace both physically and mentally healthy, seven of which are described below. First, however, let’s look at the extent of this often-hidden problem.

Mental Illness Is Widespread in American Workplaces

Mental illness is still stigmatized despite decades of attempts to better understand and treat it. But here’s what we know now.

• The National Alliance on Mental Illness says 43.8 million American adults have problems with mental illness every year.

• National Institutes of Health data show that 6.7 percent of all Americans experience a major depressive episode every year.

• Women are nearly twice as likely as men to have major depression. Younger workers are the more likely to have a major depressive episode than older workers, and white Americans have the highest rates of major depression.

• The World Health Organization and the National Business Group on Health estimate American employers lose as much as $100 billion in direct costs every year from mental illness among their employees. And that doesn’t include indirect costs like lost productivity, higher disability claims and hard-to-quantify impacts, including those caused by undiagnosed problems with mental illness.

The millions of productive, intelligent workers with mental and emotional issues want to work for companies that support them, not those that stigmatize them. And the intimacy of a small business is well suited to help an employer help an employee who’s struggling with a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental or emotional challenge.

Seven Mental Wellness Boosters

Here are some tips for businesses on how to support employees living with mental illness. (Many of these pointers are from Mental Health America.)

1. Provide onsite workshops.

Offer employees training on self-care and stress-reduction. Book a speaker to discuss mental health and mental illness with your employees. Plus, hiring a therapist to provide half-day workshops a few times a year or meditation and yoga classes could save the cost of lost work time and increase engagement and productivity.

2. Offer employee assistance programs.

EAPs can help employees privately cope with pressures that may make them unable to do their jobs. If you have an EAP, make sure your employees know that it’s there to help them with everything from problems with their marriage to PTSD. And make sure they know the help is free and completely private.

3. Ask your insurance carrier about mental health coverage.

Insurers have become more generous with behavioral benefits. Check with the company carrier to clarify what the current benefits are, and consider whether a change in coverage might be needed.

4. Insist on work/life balance.

A workplace that demands a frenetic pace and long hours can be exhilarating in the short term but could become toxic in the long run. Employers should make employees take vacations, and urge them to leave work at a decent hour. Don’t expect them to answer emails at 3 in the morning. Constantly remind workaholics that they need to have a real life away from work.

5. Educate employees—and managers—about mental health.

Don’t shy away from conversations about mental wellness. Make available some of the free screening tools that highlight risk factors and potential treatment needs. Make sure supervisors can recognize symptoms of anxiety, depression and other conditions, and give them the tools to react in a way that is helpful and positive.

6. Make physical wellness a priority.

Exercise, healthy eating, and participation in leisure activities also improve mental health. Whether you offer incentives to employees or provide workout space in the office, make overall wellness a core value for your organization.

7. Support employees’ efforts to get help.

Make it clear that it’s safe for an employee with a mental health issue to discuss treatment with managers. Make it clear that their condition will not be penalized or stigmatized. Encouraging an employee to seek treatment, allowing time off for appointments, or just assigning fewer tasks while the worker adjusts to new treatments can create an unbreakable bond between employer and employee.

By regularly addressing stress management, self care, and mental health, a company can help reduce the lingering stigma associated with mental illness. When employees believe co-workers won’t call them “crazy” and their managers won’t fire them for their struggles, they may be more willing to seek treatment. And that could be key to boosting employee health and happiness and the company’s bottom line.