The good news about improving mental wellness in the workplace and for employees is that you have plenty of options, and most of them free.
The better news is that you don’t have to deploy all of the options. Even just implementing a few of these suggestions could make an enormous difference. We’ve created a 21-point plan to help you start creating that culture, or improving your existing one. And we’ll be adding a collection of 50 simple ideas to help champion mental wellness in your workplace.
Get Buy-In From The Top
When you realize the prevalence of mental illness, it’s not a stretch to believe that your own CEO and other corporate leaders probably have their own very personal experience with such struggles. That reality could make it much easier to sell the idea of launching a comprehensive and sincere effort to address it in the workplace.
Buy-in from the top is absolutely crucial, not only to give the program the best chance of success but to ensure that all employees really believe in its sincerity. And one the best ways to achieve buy-in is to present a solid case that should focus on why it’s great for employees, for productivity and performance, for customer relationships, and for the bottom line.
Find Your Champions
Just like cybersecurity and privacy, important causes can become infectious when they’re led by passionate and believable champions. Chances are, your workplace has those champions. They may even have their very own and very personal experience with mental illness that could help to not only increase that passion but make the messages very real. Finding, engaging, supporting, and ever rewarding those champions could be the easiest way to build a successful program.
Encourage Employees To Share Their Personal Stories And Struggles
Simply talking about personal mental wellness struggles can be very therapeutic for employees. Talking about them openly in a judgment-free and supportive workplace can be even more therapeutic and help to eliminate many of the stressors that can make mental illness worse. And giving all employees the chance to understand the invisible struggles of their co-workers, and maybe even help them, can be a powerful therapy for the entire workplace.
Don’t Just Train Managers, Teach Everyone
Something as simple and as fundamental as being polite to customers is part of a culture and responsibility that belongs to everyone in the workplace, and not just leaders and managers. It should be the same for mental wellness. Everyone in the workplace should be educated about the basics of mental illness, how it can impact their co-workers, and how to recognize the signs. They should also be included in any programs and discussions and especially in understanding how to respond and relate to others dealing with the challenges.
Teach Them The Language
We know from other fields of study that most humans naturally, instinctively like to help other humans who might be suffering, and your employees are no different. But if they want to help without harming, they should know a little about mental illnesses and especially how to talk to co-workers who are struggling.
Depression and anxiety are not the same but can be very closely connected. Bi-polar disorder and manic depression are the same except that…it’s complicated. Moodiness is not necessarily a recognized mood disorder. And perhaps most important of all, employees should know what to say and to never say in their efforts to do the right thing.
Not quite the same as champions, but they can be. By assigning the challenge of researching, creating, and maintaining a mental wellness program to one or a number of individuals, you’re giving yourself a much better chance of a positive outcome. Those individuals don’t have to be champions, and don’t have to have had any previous experience with mental health issues. Just leaders who are committed to and capable of taking on one of the most important challenges in any workplace.
Make It A Cause
There’s nothing more viral and stirring than an important social cause that helps everyone. With so many people suffering from mental illness, and so many families called on to support their loved ones, mental wellness is a cause everyone can get behind.
Provide Access To Help
If you can afford to, provide access to professional mental health support and counseling in the workplace. Thanks to a variety of startups, mental health solutions have become more creative and affordable. And as insurers realize the value of prevention over treatment, many health insurance companies now offer some kind of employee mental health coverage at reasonable costs. Just remember, simply having an open wellness program in your workplace might be enough for employees, and at zero cost to you.
If you can’t afford paid mental wellness solutions or coverage for your employees, think about providing access to many of the free services that are now available. There are plenty of free resources (listed in our Resources section) that will help you get a wellness plan up and running in the workplace. Some resources are as simple as downloads and guides, others offer comprehensive training, assessment, and therapeutic tools at no cost. And if you have employees in a mental health crisis, we’ve also included a variety of free professional hotlines available 24/7.
Have Regular Mental Health Days And Discussions
You probably weren’t aware that October 10th every year is World Mental Health Day, a chance to recognize those who suffer from mental illness, as well as those who help and support them. And also an opportunity to shine a light on a global issue. But mental health in the workplace doesn’t have to be celebrated just one day a year. If you accept that an investment in mental health for your employees can produce some very tangible returns, then more is better. It’s entirely up to each workplace, but I would suggest devoting at least one day each quarter to the topic, and as many regular but more informal discussions as you think your workforce can bear.
Recognize The Stressors
We all have “things” or triggers that can increase stress and anxiety, but for those struggling with mental illness, those triggers can be harder to manage. Common stressors in the workplace can include a workload that feels overwhelming, time management challenges, ongoing conflicts with co-workers, bullying, and being judged or criticized. By understanding what the most common stressors might be for employees, teaching co-workers and managers how to recognize those stressors, and creating a work environment that can help avoid those stressors, all help to reduce the long-term impact on employees.
Create More Flexible Work Options
Offering more flexible and creative work options could provide significant mental health benefits to all employees. Flex work can improve freedom and autonomy, increase self-confidence and belief, reduce stressors, make work easier to manage and make the workplace easier to look forward to. It could also mean more time with family, less time commuting, less time and resource wasting and better productivity.
Flexible work options to help reduce workplace stressors could include things like the option of working alone instead of in a team, working in a smaller team instead of a larger team (or a larger team instead of a smaller one), working from home more often, coming in earlier and leaving earlier (perhaps to reduce commute times), work or task sharing, allowing employees to choose who they’d prefer to work with, and making projects results-focused instead of time or “attendance” based.
Think About Telecommuting Options
No one likes long or exhausting daily work commutes. Longer commutes have been shown to harm those already suffering from depression, often increasing depression and anxiety by as much as 30%. It may be because longer commutes increase stress, gives employees more time to worry about common stressors, gives them more time to dread work, gives them less time to spend with family, increases worries about missed meetings and lost productivity, and can impact physical health too.
And recognizing that absenteeism rates are typically higher for employees suffering from mental illness, a study by VU University in Amsterdam found that longer commutes can increase absenteeism by about 16%.
Address Workplace Bullying
A study from the University of Phoenix suggested that 75% of employees have been impacted by workplace bullying. Which means it’s probably happening to some degree in most workplaces. Other studies have shown that workplace bullying can create a downward mental health cycle. The more stressed, anxious, and depressed victims become, the more likely they are to be targeted for abuse and the less able they are to stand up to abuse. A simple way to anonymously report bullying in the workplace, combined with employee education about the signs and impact, could help address this risk.
Bring It Home
There are lots of things that can contribute to or accelerate employee burnout. For employees struggling with mental illness, that burnout can happen much faster and be harder to recover from. One proven way to reduce this burnout is to encourage a greater work/life balance.
Encourage Greater Work-Life Balance
The World Health Organization defined burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Longer hours, bigger projects, tougher deadlines, fewer resources – all can lead to this burnout. By simply allowing more time with family, or even more social time with co-workers, can help restore some balance and reduce this burnout.
If you’ve decided to put your employees through a formal training program on how to deal with mental illnesses, and perhaps reach and help others, then don’t keep it to yourself. Those same employees may have family members and friends who are struggling with the same challenges, and those new-found skills could be of great value outside the workplace. Like I mentioned earlier, some infections, like mental health support, are well worth spreading.
Socialize Your Efforts
Mental wellness works best when it’s infectious. The more people who are talking about it, the more are (hopefully) listening. And with such a big social stigma continuing to make it difficult for victims to come forward and speak out, an open dialog can go a long way towards a cure. Because mental wellness is such an important social cause, championing your good work on social media not only engages and encourages others, it’s great for your brand too. And there’s nothing wrong with a little self-serving if the core purpose is sincere.
Conduct Regular Wellness Surveys
For an employee struggling with mental illness, something as simple as a wellness survey can often be an opportunity for a silent but very stress-relieving scream. And especially if the survey has a mechanism to follow up with those employees who are screaming. A well-designed wellness survey not only gives employees an opportunity to share the reality of their struggles, it could also allow them to make suggestions about how workplace mental wellness could be improved. Or just vent a little.
Create Policies And Plans
In my discussions and suggestions about improving mental wellness in the workplace, I often pull on my decades of work in cybersecurity and privacy. And in those fields we know that written policies and plans can be very effective in achieving the desired outcomes. They can help make it very clear what the goals and objectives are, make it easier to share and reinforce the most important messages, and make it harder for employees to claim ignorance of the rules.
Those same principles can be applied to mental wellness programs, by simply documenting and sharing your corporate positions, promises, and expectations around wellness in the workplace. And for those employees struggling with mental wellness it can give them confidence that their struggles are being recognized and respected.
One of the best ways to maintain a successful workplace mental wellness program is to regularly evaluate how well (or not) you’re doing. This is where those wellness surveys can help. By asking some baseline questions first, and then inviting employees to regularly share any improvements they’re seeing, can be very powerful in making sure a mental wellness program is working for employees generally, and more specifically for those struggling to be well.
Bring In An Expert
An effective workplace mental wellness program doesn’t have to cost much, if anything. But a small investment in a good expert could generate some valuable and fast returns. And not necessarily a therapist or mental health professional, but someone who understands what mental wellness in the workplace should look like, someone who can put an effective program together quickly, and someone who can be a believable champion, cheerleader, and evangelist for your workforce.