Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 5-11) highlights the fact that one in five Americans takes at least one psychiatric medication, such as an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug. It’s obvious that something about our modern lifestyle needs to change. And I have a clear — and perhaps surprising — idea of where that change should start: the workplace.
Since we spend a significant chunk of our waking hours at work, employers are in a prime position to make a difference in America’s collective mental health. Because of the large role they play in employees’ lives, employers can be a first line of defense in keeping mental health issues from taking root, and can also play a pivotal role in helping individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety cope and recover.
I’m not placing the blame on employers for the current epidemic of mental health issues, but simply pointing out that illnesses like depression and anxiety are often exacerbated by environments that are stressful, demanding and hectic (e.g. most workplaces).
Many employers can’t change the pace or workloads required of their employees, but they can cultivate a culture that fosters engagement and wellness. They can also take steps to reduce the unfortunate stigma around mental health issues, encourage employees to seek help and actively support those who do. And while I hope that all business leaders genuinely care for the well-being of their people, the fact is that committing to these changes won’t be a purely philanthropic endeavor, either — employers’ bottom lines stand to benefit a great deal from improving their teams’ mental health.
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In fact, a study recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that depressed workers experienced more health-related productivity losses than those without depression — costing employers $44 billion. And despite the fact that depression and stress disorders are such a significant source of lost productivity, my research shows that 86 percent of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than speak up to their bosses.
Clearly, when employers step up and create a mentally healthy work culture, everyone wins.
Here are eight tips to help employers create programs that foster a mentally healthy and high-performing culture:
Link your efforts to purpose and values
First and foremost, employers need to understand that creating a culture of mental well-being isn’t something that can be changed simply by instituting new rules and policies. Employees’ well-being — particularly their mental health — is a very personal thing. And most people won’t be willing to speak up about their needs, preferences, struggles and experiences unless they feel that your efforts are more than just another initiative handed down from the folks in the corner offices.
People are motivated and energized when they really believe that the changes being made will make a positive difference — not just to your company’s bottom line, but also to them as individuals. For example, I know of a company that has identified “Creating brighter futures” as their overarching purpose. It is easy to see the link between this goal, the company’s future and its employees’ well-being.
Make sure leaders set the example
A recent Harvard global study of 19,000 employees showed that only 25 percent believed that their leader lived a balanced and sustainable lifestyle. The one in four employees who did believe that their leader lived a balanced and healthy life were shown to be 52 percent more engaged and had a 72 percent higher well-being.
The point? The most practical thing leaders can do to create a mentally healthy work culture is to lead healthy lives themselves. For instance, if you encourage employees to “leave work at work” so that they can devote time to family, friends, hobbies, exercise, etc., you need to do the same. If your people see you sending frantic emails at 10 p.m., they’ll assume they should be connected after hours, too — and their stress levels will remain at unhealthy levels.
Don’t expect change to happen overnight — create a multi-year plan
Culture doesn’t change overnight, especially given the stigma associated with mental health conditions. When you consider that almost nine out of 10 of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than share their condition with work colleagues, it becomes clear that a long-term plan is essential.
The following tips will identify aspects of what that plan should include. But overall, as they implement their plans, organizations should make sure to regularly assess the impact of stress on employees and how willing they are to share what is happening to them with work colleagues. Some of the United States’ most successful organizations are including these questions in their annual engagement surveys.