What Leaders Can Do to Support Employees’ Mental Health

Many employees want their organizations to put more focus on mental health issues at work. It's not an easy conversation to have, but it’s one that matters, recent research finds.

Of all the things that workers want from their employers—good pay, attractive benefits, opportunities for career growth—one item is rising higher on the priority list: greater attention to mental health in the workplace, particularly by organizational leaders.

Although work-related stress, anxiety, and burnout are common, recent research says that the continued stigma around mental health problems means that many employees don’t feel comfortable seeking help at work. In a recent study by Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics summarized in Harvard Business Review, almost 60 percent of respondents said they had experienced symptoms of a mental health condition in the past year, and 60 percent of those had never spoken about it at work.

But “when conversations about mental health did occur, less than half were described as positive,” the researchers wrote. “In fact, respondents were the least comfortable talking with their company’s HR and senior leaders, although senior leaders, including CEOs, were just as likely to struggle with mental health symptoms as individual contributors.”

The problem is especially acute among younger employees. The study found that half of millennials and three-quarters of Gen Z employees had left a job for mental health reasons.

A show of support from the top may make a big  difference for many workers. In a survey by the marketing firm Berlin Cameron, 62 percent of respondents said they would feel more comfortable talking about mental health at work if their leaders did so openly.  But 62 percent also said they had never heard anyone in a leadership role say anything about mental health.

“As leaders, we have to set an example,” Berlin Cameron President Jennifer DaSilva wrote in a Thrive Global blog post. “If we can show vulnerability and be real about our own highs and lows, our teams will feel like they can show their authentic selves, too.”

So, what does that look like? These are three important steps, according to the studies:

Create a culture of acceptance. Researchers in the Mind Share Partners study noted that mental health initiatives in an organization are often taken more seriously when someone in leadership takes ownership of them. “Given its prevalence, as well as employees’ desire for their companies to address mental health, CEOs can no longer afford to ignore it,” the researchers wrote. “Instead, they should serve as the normalizers-in-chief of mental health challenges, with support from their [chief human resources officer], to help build a culture of acceptance that permeates their organizations.”

Invest in mental health resources for employees. The costs of treating mental health problems can far outpace the costs of treating physical ailments, but they often don’t get the same levels of investment as other forms of healthcare. “Mental disorders top the list of the most burdensome and costly illnesses in the United States at over $200 billion a year, well exceeding the cost burden of heart disease, stroke, cancer and obesity,” according to the proceedings of a 2018 mental health summit published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Speak up in a prominent way. Investing and providing resources may not always be enough—a leader’s voice is often needed to set the tone and make others comfortable seeking help.  One example: Last year, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins responded to the deaths by suicide of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade by speaking frankly about mental health with employees. “In light of recent tragedies, I wanted to step away from Cisco Live for a moment to talk about the importance of mental health,” he wrote in a companywide email while attending a conference, according to CNBC. “Unfortunately, we all know friends, family, and coworkers battling mental health conditions, or maybe you’re going through your own struggles.” More than 100 employees responded to the note from Robbins. In the months that followed, Cisco added new counseling programs and other mental health assistance to its employee benefits package.

Are you discussing mental health issues in your own workplace? What approaches are most helpful to your team? Please share in the comments.

(SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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