Prior to founding ACHIEVE, I worked as a social worker in the field of mental health — both in hospital settings and in the community, providing support to those living with mental health concerns. My role in supporting people’s recovery would sometimes involve conversations with their employers about ways to best support their return to work.
I was often struck by how different employers responded to these conversations. Some were empathetic and supportive of the employee, while others were indifferent and unsupportive. In these latter situations, return-to-work attempts were often unsuccessful. Throughout my time working in this role and engaging with various employers, I quickly learned that organizations and leaders can either contribute positively or negatively to a person’s mental health.
Workplaces should care about mental health because, simply put, it is the right thing to do.
Organizations that don’t give priority to supporting the mental health of their employees are being shortsighted. I believe first and foremost that workplaces should care about mental health because, simply put, it is the right thing to do. As a society, as workplaces, and as individuals who are part of the larger community, we should care about and support those who experience mental health concerns because it’s the kind and humane way to behave. And it’s what we would want and need when we are impacted by mental health concerns. But, if that isn’t enough, there are also significant organizational costs that can come when mental health is not supported by an organization, including loss of productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism (at work physically, but not mentally focused), and turnover. In short, organizations that do the right thing by investing in the mental health and well-being of employees and will be richly rewarded with sustainable workplace performance and productivity.
Mental health concerns either directly or indirectly affect all people at some point in their lives — either personally or through a family member, friend, or colleague. The sheer number of people affected by mental illness — one in seven2 — means that mental health is an issue that impacts almost every workplace. Given the prevalence of mental illness, it is important that organizations have both the will and capacity to support mental health because early identification and support typically lead to continued productivity and retention of employees. With the right support, people with mental health concerns can thrive in the workplace.
One of the best ways to support mental health in the workplace is to be proactive and ensure that you are providing a safe and healthy workplace for staff. When this does not occur, the impacts of stress and conflict lead to the risk of burnout and contribute to mental health concerns. To be proactive, you should work to ensure your organization is competent in these six areas:
Create Healthy Workplace Culture
People spend so much time at work that the culture of an organization can’t help but impact their mental health — the healthier the culture, the more supportive it will be for the individual. Be intentional about creating a workplace where employees feel safe, supported, and respected.
Enact Formal Policies
Ensure your policies and reporting procedures around things like respect, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace are clear and consistently applied and enforced. Clearly articulate the importance of using vacation and sick days so that people take breaks. Consider if your staff orientation to these policies is adequate.
Make Services and Programs Accessible
If counselling services are a part of benefits, ensure that staff understand how to access them. Become aware of community resources that may be helpful, work to let staff know about them, and normalize access to these services.
Prioritize Training and Development
Offer training to both employees and managers in mental health awareness and support. The more educated people are about mental health, the more likely they will be to help each other and feel comfortable seeking help when they need it. Be sure your leadership development training program fosters leaders who are caring and empathetic.
Manage Psychological Hazards
Exposure to psychological hazards like toxic conflict, bullying, and harassment can negatively impact a person’s mental health. Ensure managers know how to deal with these issues by providing them adequate training and support. Then make sure staff know who to speak with if they are experiencing any of these issues.
Lead by Example
Leadership should be visibly and actively engaged in supporting mental health. One way to do this is to normalize conversations around mental health. When leaders are comfortable and proactive in having open conversations around mental health, it shows staff that it’s safe to talk about it at work.
Investing in mental health is investing in our best asset — our staff. When we invest in our staff and their well-being, they are in a better position to support the mission and vision of our organization. But when people are not mentally healthy, it’s next to impossible to function at a high level. When we work to support mental health concerns in the workplace, it benefits both employees and the organization.
- What have been the positive and/or negative experiences you have had or observed around organizational responses to mental health in the workplace?
- How does your organization provide support for mental health? Which of the six areas above could use more attention from you and other leaders in your organization?
The next time you have a staff meeting, start to reduce stigma around mental health in the workplace by talking about it. Lead by example and show that it’s okay to talk about mental health by sharing a personal experience or showing a video promoting mental health awareness.
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