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Mental Health on the Job: Tips for Ending Stigma at Work

Taking care of employees’ mental health is good for business and more importantly, the right thing to do.

That was one key takeaway from a recent panel discussion in Grand Rapids on mental health for the business community. The event was organized by I Understand, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting those who have lost a loved one by suicide or who struggle with mental illness.

Panelist Jeanne Englehart exemplifies the hidden face of depression in the workplace. A successful entrepreneur and community leader who shepherded the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce into an award-winning organization during her seven-year tenure as its first female president and CEO, Englehart seemed to have it all.

Despite her outward success, she struggled for years with depression, panic attacks and thoughts of suicide. Connecting with I Understand helped her share her story, which surprised many people who thought they knew her well.

“It was hard for people to believe I was in that situation,” she said.

Englehart said a work culture supportive of people dealing with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness needs to come from top leadership and infiltrate down. Being supportive of employees with mental illness should be no different than supporting those diagnosed with cancer or chronic illnesses.

“We need to talk about it. We need to do it without stigma and shame,” Englehart said.

Panel moderator Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, shared stats showing that workplace stress is responsible for $190 billion in annual health care costs. I Understand founder Vonnie Woodrick, who lost her husband to depression 14 years ago, said workplaces need to make it easier for employees to talk about their mental health without fear or shame.

Other panelists who shared their personal stories of mental illness or losing a loved one to suicide included Nancy Lubbers, who lost her son Andy Lubbers to suicide in 2016; Doug Meijer, who shared insights about his struggles with depression; and Craig Welch, whose mom suffered from addiction to alcohol and was also lost to suicide after a painful relapse from sobriety. All agreed that reducing mental health stigma in general would help more people seek the help they need and that supportive workplaces could go a long way in effecting societal change.

For workers, poor mental health in the workplace can lead to increased accidents, mental burnout, more sick days used and decreased performance. From a business standpoint, it can also increase insurance premiums, decrease productivity, create higher turnover and reduce creativity and team cohesion.

Here are I Understand’s tips for fostering a healthier workplace for people coping with mental illness.

Demolish the stigma

  • Educate employees that mental health problems are no different than any other physical illness.
  • Communicate to your team that your organization values good mental health.
  • Consider hosting educational seminars, workshops or speakers to raise awareness.

Recognize warning signs.

  • Withdrawal and self-isolation.
  • Anger-prone behavior.
  • Lack of interest in daily activities.
  • Declining productivity.
  • Lapses in memory and trouble concentrating.

Create a safe environment.

  • Cultivate a trusting and supportive atmosphere. Your organization’s culture may determine how employees cope with a mental health crisis while on the job.
  • Ensure your employees feel safe if they need to ask for help.
  • Provide local and national resources like hotline phone/text numbers and professional recommendations.

Thank you to I Understand for allowing us to share their tips. If you’d like to know more about the organization, you can visit their website or connect on Facebook and Instagram.

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Photo credit: MadFish Digital

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