Five steps organisations can take to promote employee physical and mental health in the workplace.
By Ayana Collins and Leigh Jose
Mental health—not a common topic of discussion in the office, but when nearly 450 million people across the globe live with mental illnesses, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), self-care benefits and support should become a focus of employer-provided programmes.
Research shows that untreated mental disorders can lead to increased absenteeism, decreased work performance due to burnout and disciplinary problems, and high turnover. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the U.S., depression alone causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year, costing employers up to $44 billion. In addition, WHO estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
From a physical health perspective, ignored mental disorders can cause an increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, ulcers, infections, and other ailments—which can lead to further negative impacts on organisational success. To help mitigate these issues, it’s important for organisations to take steps to create a supportive, understanding work environment.
Despite the research conducted over the years and a more public acknowledgement of mental health issues that casts light on the prevalence of mental disorders and successful treatment options, there is still a strong stigma. In the corporate setting, some perceptions might include that those with psychiatric needs are second-rate workers that can’t tolerate stress, or are unpredictable and unreliable. Whilst the WHO fortunately reports changes in attitudes about mental conditions, employers play a vital role in furthering acceptance at a local level.
Organisations can help tackle mental health misconceptions with an educational initiative, including open conversations about the signs and symptoms of common issues. Here are some tips for communicating this oftentimes difficult subject in a work environment:
1. Overhaul and promote the employee assistance programme (EAP). Many organisations offer EAPs—voluntary, confidential programmes that help employees work through various life challenges and include services like assessments, counselling, and referrals. To ensure that employees utilise this programme, organisations should ask themselves if the EAP accurately describes their self-care benefit. If not, consider rebranding it to something more descriptive such as employee self-care resource or work-life balance support.
Although EAPs are typically confidential, many employees can be hesitant to use the service for a mental health concern due to job security fears or future career opportunities. Organisations should brand their programmes in a way that presents the EAP as private and approachable, highlighting the programme as a personalised experience with ongoing support instead of a one-time-use call centre.
2. Tailor messages to the workforce. Recognise specific stressors that could affect mental health in the organisation’s industry. For example, restaurant workers typically spend long hours on their feet. Addressing the physical and mental toll this can take—such as fatigue, soreness, and stress—with helpful coping tips can demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of the workforce’s efforts.
Using communication methods that are best suited to employee demographics is key. This might mean implementing multiple strategies for the same message; for example, baby boomers may prefer mail-to-home newsletters whereas text message campaigns and videos are a better fit for millennials.
3. Encourage seeking help. Depression is the main cause of disability worldwide with an estimated 300 million people affected and less than half of those getting proper care. In fact, WHO reports that between 35 and 50 per cent of people with severe mental health problems in developed countries, and 76 to 85 per cent in developing countries, receive no treatment.
Employees will likely appreciate the open acceptance and understanding of mental health issues. Highlight the company’s support options, available resources, and where to seek valuable care—including a physician or psychiatrist visit when necessary. This communication, support, and encouragement just might be the nudge employees need to lead healthier, more productive lives at home and in the office.
4. Offer actionable steps. When implementing a mental health awareness initiative, employers should urge employees to take positive actions, such as:
- scheduling a mental health screening with a primary care physician;
- taking advantage of free or low-cost time management seminars to reduce stress;
- incorporating quick mental breaks throughout the day such as a short walk or meditation using a program such as Headspace;
- de-cluttering workspaces to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed;
- establishing a healthy work/life balance; and
- making an effort to build professional relationships that can help forge a sense of support and belonging.
This can be aided through company-sponsored social events, such as on-site lunches or happy hours.
5. Support time off and flexible work conditions. Work-life balance is a key aspect of relieving stress. Establishing and maintaining a culture that encourages taking personal time when needed can have a lasting impact on morale and stress levels. Paid time off (PTO) to spend time with family, visit the doctor, decompress, or take care of other personal matters is a crucial responsibility that employers have for an employee’s overall well-being. Including a standardised PTO policy in the employee handbook can help set expectations.
Also, consider flexible work schedules or the opportunity to work from home. Based on ManpowerGroup’s 2017 Global Candidate Preferences Survey, 40 per cent of job candidates across 19 countries cite flexibility as one of their top three career considerations. And this is becoming more popular: Global Workplace Analytics reports that the number of permanent employees that work from home has grown by 140 per cent since 2005. Working from home can have several positive effects that can help the company succeed, such as:
- increased productivity and decreased stress due to less time spent in traffic;
- feelings of value and trust, leading to higher employee retention rates and loyalty; and
- continued efficiency when under the weather, especially when contagious and not able to come into the office.
Ayana Collins is a wellness consultant and Leigh Jose is senior communications consultant at EPIC Insurance Brokers & Consultants.