The Business Imperative of Well-Being Initiatives
#evolve Magazine
July 18, 2021

Employees’ mental health is paramount to their performance and has an immense influence on their contribution to the organization. Well-being initiatives are nothing new, of course, but employers today realize that there is no denying the imperative.

WorldatWork CEO Scott Cawood recently sat down with the editors of Workspan and #evolve to discuss the integral role and impact of mental well-being on the business.

How has the coronavirus pandemic brought the importance of employee mental well-being into the spotlight?

I wonder if most people know that May is Mental Health Month and has been since 1949. I mention this because we have been working for a long time now to ensure that mental health is prioritized along with other health related issues. No one thinks twice about going to the doctor when they break a leg or get a cut on their arm. Many people don’t even think to ensure their mental health or even see it as potentially dangerous. It is true that some injuries are more tangible, like when you are bleeding, but it doesn’t mean mental health issues are any less dangerous or difficult to manage.

COVID reminded us of many things, including the fact that life is fragile and we should live in the moments in the best ways we can. The pandemic has also brought another opportunity to rethink and re-examine how we are taking care of mental health issues at both work and home.

We have all read the data that tells us over and over that mental health issues are emerging in a significantly higher number of people than before COVID. We must account for this reality as we plan for upcoming integration points and more people return to more traditional workplaces and schedules.

That adage about there being safety in numbers may be helping with mental health — which, by the way, is something I refer to as the crisis after the crisis. We are not through COVID yet, and we are also seeing the continuation of a mental health crisis sweeping both workplaces and households, given the disruption so many have faced over the last 18 months.

Each day another report emerges on the mental state of people and employees. This means the workforce you sent to work remotely during COVID isn’t the same workforce you are now planning on having return to work in the office, even if on a hybrid schedule.

The CDC suggests U.S. businesses lose more than 200 million workdays each year to depression, which costs employees billions annually. A year ago — just six months into the pandemic — the CDC found that nearly 41% people reported an adverse mental or behavioral condition, including depression, increased anxiety or increased reliance on substances to cope. We can normally expect about 20% to report this, so we are clearly seeing a lot more mental health issues emerge.

How do you see employers responding — expanding mental health benefits, providing additional PTO, etc. — in their effort to help better address mental health concerns in the world of work?

There is significant movement right now with employers on several issues, including mental health response. This is encouraging to see and includes extending flexible work schedules, being more open to considering individual and family needs and partnering more effectively with employees who have a circumstance that might not fit within a policy.

In general, I see managers being more willing to discuss accommodation to better meet their needs, which helps everyone in the end. The fact remains that each and every employee, contractor and worker is also a human being. And, while we don’t like to admit it, they are the full person 24 hours a day, which includes the time they are working with you.

We must find new ways to accommodate the full person and not just focus on the part of them that works for you. Forcing people to forgo mental health because of an established policy or a bad boss is very unfortunate, and I expect we will see more conversations that lead to broader “guidelines” for how and when people are going to work.

“Every employee, contractor and worker is also a human being. And, while we don’t like to admit it, they are the full person 24 hours a day, which includes the time they are working with you.”

I am hoping that we see changes in organizations that still prioritize physical health over mental health, which usually plays out badly for both the person and the company. CEOs and leaders need to be honest with themselves when asked if they encourage employees to get help for mental health issues on a regular basis or if it is one of those taboo topics that we just hope happens.

If leaders really understood how untreated mental health issues impact their workplaces and bottom lines, I do think we’d see increased utilization toward treatments. It is vitally important to remember that mental health is treatable and there are multiple options that address them for people.

Many mental well-being experts cite the lingering stigma around mental health issues as a significant reason why many employees are hesitant to seek out the mental well-being resources they need. What can companies do to help eliminate that stigma and to ensure that employees under- stand that their mental well-being is a priority for the organization?

Organizations should conduct a health risk assessment to see how their employees are doing. This is not often done but should be. You can remain HIPAA-compliant and still ask about mental health.

If you are like most organizations, you likely have a low utilization rate for your employee assistance program, which is an incredibly valuable resource for people. It is important to note that the vast majority of employees who receive mental illness treatment also report an increase in their productivity. We also know that employees who are depressed typically have higher medical costs, which ultimately impacts the organization.

It is good to audit your mental health benefits to ensure employees have enough options in network to get the care they need. I always remind employers that, in the end, you have two choices: Pay for the services employees need to remain mentally and physically healthy, or pay for the impact when they are not. It’s much better to provide employees with what they need to maintain their well-being, as it benefits both the individual and the organization at the same time.

“The advances in technology also should be utilized by employers to offer more alternatives for workplace wellness and mental health treatments. Telehealth options have the potential to fundamentally change for the better how mental health is accessed and treated.”

The advances in technology also should be utilized by employers to offer more alternatives for workplace wellness and mental health treatments. Telehealth options have the potential to fundamentally change for the better how mental health is accessed and treated.

There are still obstacles to getting the help people need for their mental health. Companies can help by figuring out what those obstacles are, including any policies or benefits that make it harder for people to get help. Leaders can also be trained to notice that the human being that reports to you appears to be struggling and you are perfectly suited to make an inquiry to see if you can help. Managers often get nervous about mental health inquiries, and this is a great area for HR to step in and help them understand what they should and should not be doing.

Finally, I’d encourage all employers to be transparent that seeking out mental health treatment is a good and welcomed thing to do. This can be reinforced in onboarding programs, training and other mental health information that genuinely encourages people to take great care of themselves mentally and physically.

Bonus questions

Juneteenth snuck up on a lot of companies. What are the best ways for companies to draft their holiday schedule to address the concerns of an increasingly diverse and socially involved workforce? Should a company stick with federal holidays and allow PTO to address other holiday needs? What about multinational companies? If any holiday policy adds to paid days off, how can you make up for that to address bottom-line concerns?

Juneteenth may have sneaked up on a lot of companies, but I doubt it sneaked up on the African American employees in those companies, and I think that is something of a data point that can guide future decisions.

Ideally, companies can address the concerns of an increasingly diverse and socially involved workforce by using their core values as a guide. There are several considerations that companies can use when they decide about what holidays to support or if they decide to consider a different set of holidays than those sanctioned by the federal government.

I also think it is prudent to offer employees a choice for at least some of your company holidays. For example, in the United States, can I work on Thanksgiving, but take off a different day to celebrate an important day for my family? This can also be achieved by having some “floating” holidays that are totally up to the employee to decide when to navigate today’s workforce challenges with they are used.

This helps balance out their own religious or personal beliefs on what days to take off versus only the ones designated by the company or government. I have found that you can set different holiday schedules even in multinationals and use a country or region as a guide. For example, most of the U.S. will likely be closed on Thanksgiving day. But, should co-workers in Britain be expected to celebrate, since it was a war with the British Empire that gave the U.S. this particular holiday? Point being, let people have as much choice in what they celebrate as you can and don’t get tripped up by everyone not celebrating some of the holidays you do.

Related WorldatWork Resources
As Union Activity Rises Nationwide, There Are Positive Ways to Manage It
A Deep Data Dive on EAP Outcomes
Supporting Digital Nomads as the Great Resignation Comes to an End
Related WorldatWork Courses
Committing to Pay Equity
Pay Equity Course Series
Understanding Pay Equity
Great Workplace Content, Delivered to You

Get the latest expert insights and analysis for leaders in HR, total rewards, business and rewards management — delivered straight to your inbox, for free. #evolve issues are published on a bi-monthly schedule.