Woman smiling at work.

Mental Health in the Workplace: Tips for a Supportive Culture

If you’re sick with the flu, it’s probably an easy decision to stay home from work.

If you have chronic depression, the decision to work or not to work on any given day is much more fraught and difficult in many workplaces. In fact, 55% of workers say they’re afraid to take a day off to address their mental health issues.

Vicki Kavanaugh, prevention & advocacy lead at Arbor Circle, a West Michigan provider of mental health counseling and other services, says it doesn’t have to be that way. Employers can and should create a supportive atmosphere for their employees facing mental health issues and mental illness. Doing so will not only lead to healthier workers, it can help build a healthier business, Kavanaugh explained, during a recent Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce Lunch & Learn presentation. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan invited Kavanaugh to participate.

“As a health insurer, we know mental health is something our group customers care about. When employees aren’t well, physically or mentally, it’s important they know they’ll be supported in seeking care,” said Sandy Ham, regional sales manager, West Shore Region, BCBSM. “Arbor Circle is a Blue Cross provider as well as a group customer here in West Michigan and the services they provide to the community are exceptional. We wanted to connect business owners and human resource leaders with solid advice we knew Arbor Circle could provide to make their workplaces better for those with mental health issues.”

Why do employers need to care about mental health in the workplace? For starters, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, as estimated by the World Health Organization. Depression is one of the top issues workers bring to employee assistance programs and costs $51 billion due to absenteeism and $26 billion in treatment costs.

So, what can employers do to change their culture to be more supportive? Many of the same initiatives put in place to improve workers’ physical health can also benefit their mental health, Kavanaugh said.

“This culture of wellness needs to kind of join your mental health and your physical health because you really can’t have one without the other,” she explained. Kavanaugh’s tips for employers were to:

  • Provide opportunities for exercise, which has been shown to be beneficial to mental health.
  • Structure breaks during the day and make sure employees take them.
  • Provide vacation time, including mental health days, and encourage employees to use both. Encourage managers to lead by example and model healthy time management as it relates to working hours and vacation time.
  • Foster a supportive atmosphere that encourages the formation of supportive relationships on the job.
  • Promote opportunities for employees to volunteer, which can help them feel connected to a bigger purpose and provide positive mental health benefits.
  • Connect with local mental health organizations to provide trainings to employees on mental health tools, such as QPR, a mental health intervention technique that stands for question, persuade, refer. Or, as Kavanaugh puts it, “90 minutes that will save someone’s life.”
  • Make sure employees know who to go to about their own mental health issues or about concerns they have regarding a co-worker’s mental health.
  • Start conversations about mental health and make those discussions an acceptable part of the work culture. Creating a dialogue around mental health lets employees know they’re not alone.

“We all tend to feel like we’re the only ones going through it when we’re not,” Kavanaugh said.

Fostering a working environment where people feel safe and understood can set you apart as an employer, leading to loyal, engaged employees.

How is your workplace addressing mental health? Share what’s worked for you in the comments.

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Photo credit: Vasyl Dolmatov

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