Mental health needs have increased dramatically during the pandemic, and employee mental health is a top priority of employers. Yet more than 40% of employees are concerned about workplace retaliation for seeking mental health care or taking time off to manage mental health needs. To address employees’ mental health care needs, employers will need to take a multifaceted approach to confront the issue. But they will only succeed if they address organizational culture and how work directly affects employee mental health.
Mental Health Stigma Is Still Problematic
Though employees are seeking mental health support, far too few are getting the help they need even as access to virtual care has increased. Many factors influence whether and when people obtain needed mental health care. Time pressures, affordability and provider availability are the primary reasons that employees delay or abandon efforts for mental health care. Readiness and motivation also play a role in the decision to seek care; cultural beliefs and stigma may prevent some seeking mental health treatment.
Stigma leads to reduced hope, lower self-esteem, social isolation, difficulty at work and reluctance to seek treatment. Some are afraid to express their needs or concerns about their current situations, often causing delays in acknowledging the need for help or worse: failure to obtain proper treatment. Black, LBGTQ+ employees and lower-wage workers all report increased concern about workplace discrimination if they receive mental health care and more difficulty finding mental health providers who are well-matched culturally.
Mental Health and Culture
Employers should focus on the relationship between employee mental health and company culture because each critically influences the other. Culture affects how employees interact with one another and how work is done. It encompasses company values, expectations of the business and employees, atmosphere, how problems are approached and solved, communication, reputation and more.
Mental health is affected by culture. Workplace stress, burnout, staffing, flexibility, managerial relationships, policies/procedures and internal social support contribute to employee mental health. The organization’s culture and approach to issues that affect mental health and mental health stigma can be the difference between a favorable or unfavorable employee experience and lower or higher reported levels of well-being.
Employee mental health affects business performance. WTW research shows that employees with anxiety and depression reported lower work engagement, more missed workdays and are more likely to leave their current jobs. But an open, supportive, caring community can positively influence organizational norms and behaviors and increase the likelihood that employees will seek the mental health care they need.
Incorporating Mental Health into Culture
Overcoming mental health stigma should be part of a larger effort to foster a culture of psychological safety. Employees feel psychologically safe when they are comfortable expressing all dimensions of themselves at work without fear of consequence. Employees who perceive that disclosing mental health issues in the workplace might harm their career potential are less likely to seek needed care and/or support from their leaders.
Connecting mental health to overall health and well-being can destigmatize mental health for employees and create a holistic, psychologically safe company culture. Organizations that make employees feel psychological safe exhibit better employee and business performance through engagement, retention and overall employee well-being.
Companies can address mental health stigma across multiple business functions to create a psychologically safe company culture. Here are six actionable stigma-reducing best practices:
- Use anti-stigma as a cornerstone of culture. Establish non-negotiable tenets for your organization around mental health and stigma, such as acceptance and non-discrimination for those with mental health needs. Help ensure that communications are inclusive, and leadership is committed to mental health.
- Showcase leadership commitment. Leaders who show empathy and compassion help companies achieve positive change, trust, loyalty and increased productivity. Employees don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses, and employees leave jobs because their bosses lack empathy. Authentic leadership can build trust and improve employee performance. Leaders can be highly influential champions and models for healthy behaviors and positive mental health. Coaching leaders and frontline managers can help increase talent retention.
- Supply appropriate training. Provide organization-wide training and awareness campaigns to educate employees on mental health facts, including unconscious bias related to mental health conditions. Managers can be supported through resources such as toolkits and how-to guides on difficult conversations. Education provides an opportunity to dispel myths associated with mental health and allow for informed dialogue. Training can be a powerful way to address bias, destigmatize mental health and recognize the signs of emotional distress for employees who may be struggling.
- Design policies and procedures to diminish stigma. Review policies and, if necessary, change them to support mental health needs, such as leaves of absence, flexibility and remote work. Support managers by creating procedures and processes that guide engagement and problem-solving around mental health needs for employees. Managers can be most effective when they have easy access to resources for referral to services such as employee assistance programs, mental health benefits and programs and internal employee resources groups. Use mental health to assess flexible work arrangements, time off, leave policies and policies that support family caregivers and workplace safety.
- Leverage internal community support. Creating employee resource groups (ERGs) or business resources groups (BRGs) dedicated to mental health or inclusivity to get insight into the experiences of employees throughout the organization. ERGs can provide internal advocacy for change or provide social support for employees beyond what leadership provides.
- Listen to employees. Employees will only tell you what you need to know about your organization if you ask. Employers can evaluate the presence and impact of stigma through employee surveys, reviews of external evaluation sites (e.g., Glassdoor) and confidential focus groups. These insights can help inform a strategic and actionable approach to addressing mental health stigma in your organization.
Reaping Rewards of a Mental Health-Friendly Culture
Organizations can show they prioritize employee well-being by incorporating these six mental health best practices to eliminate stigma in the workplace and create an inclusive organizational culture. This can drive a lasting competitive advantage, improve employee engagement, productivity, retention and engagement by normalizing conversations around seeking proper mental health care.
Continuously engaging employees in discussions, personalizing the delivery of care and creating a community of those with shared experiences will authentically demonstrate the organization’s concern for the mental well-being of its employees and their families.
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