“Your willingness to open up an honest conversation about mental health with your employees is exactly the kind of gift that so many people want and need right now.”
Deborah Grayson Riegel
COVID-19 has taught us countless lessons but none more important than the need for empathy and understanding for those who are struggling. Not only have concerns for our physical health and safety come to the forefront but our mental health has been stretched to its limits. While it is normal to feel fear, angst and stress during traumatic times, work from home has introduced a new set of stressors. Those with children and/or aging parents at home must juggle an array of additional responsibilities such as online schooling, eldercare and childcare during their new workday routines. And individuals living alone have their own loneliness challenges. Regardless of living situations, due to social distancing guidelines and gathering restrictions, we are all feeling the effects of social isolation. This perfect storm calls for a new focus on mental health at work.
The need for a new way forward
Even prior to the pandemic, mental health symptoms were affecting workers across all levels of organizations, according to the Mental Health a Work Report conducted by non-profit organization Mind Share Partners, in conjunction with SAP and Qualtrics. However, employees are not comfortable talking about mental health at work, especially to senior leaders and HR. Nearly sixty percent (60%) reported experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition in the past year and sixty-one percent (61%) said their productivity at work was affected by their mental health. Findings indicate the need for better support systems within firms, in particular training and clarity around existing resources and more open and inclusive cultures for mental health.1
Even before COVID, nineteen percent (19 %) of adults (over 47 million Americans) experienced mental illness, according to the 2021 The State of Mental Health in America and the estimated number of adults with serious suicidal thoughts was more than 10.7 million people (an increase of 460,000+) over the previous year. Yet over 26 million individuals experiencing mental illness go untreated.2 Although many organizations have employee assistance programs (EAPs), utilization averages are below 10 percent.3 Bottom line, there is an overwhelming need for a new way forward.
Five actions to support mental health in your firm
Want to support mental health? Here are five proven steps to consider in your practice.
1. Talk about mental health
Bring the conversation into the firm’s mainstream, rather than a taboo subject often associated with negative stereotypes and stigmas. Begin at the leadership level. Initiate honest, transparent conversations with employees. Offer narratives of personal experiences with a family member, friend or someone close. When a senior firm member can share their mental struggles and the need for support and self-care, it helps normalize mental health issues and sets the tone in the firm. These purposeful discussions can impact your culture, creating a more open, supportive environment where individuals can start to feel comfortable talking about their situation. Although it may take time for some to discuss their challenges, the more the subject is addressed, the sooner it will become the norm.
2. Provide information on what to do if you need assistance
Regularly discuss specific assistance that your firm offers. If you provide an EAP, virtual therapy or an employee resource group (ERG) talk about them. If you offer complimentary meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm, discuss them. Help each person understand how these resources work. Share details of what to do and who to contact to learn more or get started. Encourage all that feel the need for assistance to take advantage of these firm benefits. The same goes for firm leaders that need assistance in dealing with their own mental health. Remind everyone that there is nothing to be embarrassed about in seeking support. If there is something physically off or wrong with our bodies, we have no hesitation in treatment – the same theory should be applied to our mental wellbeing.
Build a resource library on your intranet that employees and firm leaders can tap into. Include links to firm resources and assistance programs along with outside tools such as blogs, podcasts, articles and books. Here are a few to get your collection started.
- Returning to work: Prioritizing mental health
- Take care of your staff’s mental health during COVID-19
- Depression and the CPA
- Strengthening employee emotional fitness - Anticipating the needs of employees in response to COVID-19
- COVID-19: Supporting employee wellbeing
You may want to ask those that have benefited from firm resources to anonymously share their stories too.
3. Offer mental health training
One of the most requested resources by employees and firm leaders in the Mental Health at Work Report was the need for training. This type of mental health instruction is essential to retain and recruit talent. Eighty-six percent (86%) of job seekers think it is important for a company’s culture to support mental health.5
You can include numerous topics into your training such as:
- How to create a culture that supports mental health
- How to engage employees in the conversation
- How leaders that are experiencing mental health challenges of their own can practice self-care and get the assistance they need while guiding and supporting their team
4. Provide mental health breaks
October 10 has been officially designated as World Mental Health Day to raise awareness and mobilize support of mental health issues. Is your firm one of a growing number of employers such as Thompson Reuters and Cisco that provides mental health breaks to its employees? Whether it is one day a year, a quarter, a month or a flex schedule to accommodate short, daily breaks, consider this benefit to help meet the needs of yourself and your team. Use the occasion to explain and highlight the firm’s commitment to this important subject. Encourage employees and firm leaders to focus on their own self-care in ways that are personally beneficial during these breaks.
5. Create a culture of caring
As practitioners we pride ourselves in caring for our clients, yet it is more important than ever to first care for ourselves. From healthy eating, sleeping, exercise and mindfulness, self-care is a top priority. Whether that means participating in a meditation class, speaking with an online counselor, walking, reading, painting or listening to music, inspire your team to find meaningful ways to lookout for themselves. Offer employees flexibility and support so they can fit new routines into their schedules. Create opportunities for team member to gather and share tips to strengthen their mental prowess. Once you are mentally fit, it is much easier to properly care for others.
Also encourage everyone in the firm to check in regularly on their colleagues. No need for a formal or complicated process. Simply make it a habit to connect with others and ask if they are doing okay. All it takes is a quick text, instant message, Zoom chat, email or phone call. When you notice someone acting out of character, reach out to them. Keep in mind that you are there to lend support, not resolve their issues. This type of caring community will help build trust during the pandemic and well into the future.
There has never been a better time to talk about mental health in the workplace. When you begin conversations in your firm, you can help remove negative stigmas and stereotypes creating a more open, supportive environment where everyone can start to feel comfortable talking about their mental health.