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Why You Should Prioritize Mental Health in the Workplace
Safety and Security Mar 17, 2022

Why You Should Prioritize Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health can have a major impact on the overall safety of your employees and the operation of your business. Here is why you should prioritize it in your workplace.

Most Americans have had to work through illness or injury at some point in their career. It might have just been something minor, maybe a bout of allergies or a pinched nerve in your neck. Small distracting pain that’s constantly tugging at your ability to focus. For others, it might be something larger, like a major illness that casts a heavy shadow over your mood and demands attention during the workday. While the scope of burden will vary drastically depending on what is going on, at every level, your health is going to impact your job.

It’s easy to point at something like a broken leg or the flu and say, “this is going to slow me down at work.” After all, you can’t leave your physical ailments at home when you go into the office. But there are many other health conditions that are much less visible that still affect employees every day. One of them is mental health.

What is mental health?

Mental health consists of a person’s social, psychological, and emotional well-being and takes into account factors like stress management, decision making, and thought patterns. Mental health can have a huge impact on any individual’s quality of life, and poor mental health can create lasting detrimental effects if not addressed.

Mental health, just like physical health, encompasses a huge range of considerations. Mental well-being is a factor of employees’ lives that should not be overlooked. And though it is not easy to see at first glance if someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness doesn’t mean employers should assume all their employees are fine.

While mental health might not be talked about in workplace safety circles as much as risks like accidents or injuries, it is just as important to prioritize. And there is no better time than now to focus on mental health in your workplace. The wake of the pandemic has prompted many employees to reexamine their priorities in the workplace, and many are still struggling with the stress and emotional impacts of the last two years.

Since March of 2020, the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased globally, and in many countries, it has more than doubled.

Unfortunately, these effects haven’t faded as COVID cases have dropped. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that mental health impacts have maintained nearly the same rate (47 percent vs. 53 percent) since the July of 2020. This is clearly more than just a “symptom” of the pandemic.

Depression, anxiety, and mental health as a whole are as old as humanity. There has always been a population of workers fighting to compartmentalize their invisible struggles. The pandemic simply threw this issue into stark focus.

Compartmentalizing was no longer feasible as workers tried to balance new work environments, uncertainty, and constant worry about an ever-evolving global health crisis. Meanwhile, businesses suddenly found themselves in need of an entirely new vocabulary and approach to address a new aspect of employee safety and well-being in the workplace.

Addressing mental health in the workplace is no longer optional. It can have major implications to not only the health of employees but the overall function of a business. This article will break down those implications and what companies are actually doing to help.

Why Prioritize Mental Health at Work?

All businesses have a duty of care to protect their employees from harm while working. This goes for traditional workplace safety efforts like providing PPE and training for dangerous equipment usage as well as it also covers protecting the mental health of your workers.

Mental health problems and mental illness are pervasive concerns, with one in five U.S. adults reporting mental illness prior to the pandemic. That means a fifth of the workforce is facing mental and emotional conditions that could be majorly affecting their ability to do their jobs.

Poor mental health can affect:
  • Productivity
  • Job performance
  • Communication skills
  • Teamwork
  • Engagement
  • Job satisfaction
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Mental health can also have financial impacts since companies spend an average of $15,000 annually for employees facing mental health issues (pre-COVID). And unwell employees often face increased absenteeism and have to take more time off—some report missing up to eight days of work.

Just like their physical health, an employee’s mental health doesn’t only exist while they are outside their regular 9-5 hours—there is simply no way for people to stop feeling the effects of stress, anxiety, depression, or more while at work. In fact, stressful work environments can often exacerbate mental health conditions. Nine in ten employees report that their workplace stress impacts their mental health, and three in five say they are not receiving adequate support from their supervisors to help manage stress.

For employees who don’t feel supported by their organization, attrition is a common consequence. Fifty percent of employees have left a role for mental health reasons, and that rate is higher—up to 81 percent—for Millenials and Gen-Z. This supports research that shows employees are more likely to leave a job when they feel their safety is not prioritized by their employer. Employers are facing a workforce that is significantly more concerned about safety, mental health included, and the stakes are high for losing key team members.

The stakes are much higher, however, for employees struggling with suicidal thoughts. Suicide incidents are climbing, recently reaching a 50-year high, and Forbes reports that workplace stress is believed to be the leading factor in suicides when employees have little or no control over high job demands.

“When you’re concerned that a person may be suicidal, you should look for a change in their behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This can especially be of concern if that new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, a loss, or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more of these warning signs, and it’s typically either through what they say or what they do.” —Maggie Mortali, Senior Program Director, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

How Does Mental Health Impact Other Safety Initiatives in the Workplace?

Mental health can also have major implications for other safety initiatives in the workplace since a culture of safety requires all employees to contribute. Disgruntled or stressed employees who don’t feel supported for their mental health are less likely to follow proper safety protocols and are more likely to ignore important internal communications. Poor mental health symptoms like bad sleeping and eating habits can put employees at higher risk for dangerous behavior, like falling asleep at work. It can also inhibit comprehension of safety procedures, leading to a higher rate of accidents.

Poor communication is also a risk for employees suffering from mental health concerns. Communication is a critical facet of workplace safety, and any missing link can cause a large-scale breakdown. This is especially true during emergency situations, where every second counts.

Businesses have a huge influence over their employees’ wellbeing, and it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that their employees are protected. When it comes to protecting mental health, there is a necessity to shift away from how health and safety have traditionally been addressed and move toward prioritizing the whole health of your employees.

A New Era of Workplace Health and Safety

The modern workplace is one that focuses heavily on health and safety—to great success. Just prior to the pandemic, workplace injuries and illnesses were at an all-time low. But these efforts were focused primarily on preventing disease, violence, and occupational hazards. Mental health was, for a long time, an entire facet of employee wellness that was frequently left unaddressed.

Today, mental health is one of the biggest focal points for individuals and healthcare providers alike (even tech investors have picked up on the boom). But it is more than just a trend.

Talking about mental health in the workplace has always carried somewhat of a taboo—after all, no employee wants to seem like they can’t handle their workload and risk losing their job. But there is a growing effort to destigmatize these conversations in order to build a better culture of wellness. There are also some specific efforts, but businesses to go beyond just talking and put support networks, resources, and benefits in place so that their employees are cared for.

How Employers Are Supporting Employees’ Mental Health

There are a lot of different examples of how you can support mental health in the workplace. For example, Zendesk, a sales and support CRM business, partnered with Modern Health, a global preventative mental wellness platform, to provide self-service wellness kits, coaching, and therapist matching services to their employees.

Companies like Bumble, LinkedIn, and HubSpot have opted to support their employees’ mental health with time off. These companies offered up to a full week of paid time off to employees for a “burnout break” or a “week of rest” in order to combat feelings of burnout and stress.

These companies understand exactly how important prioritizing mental health can be for not only the wellbeing of their teams but for the smooth operation of their business. And while implementing large-scale efforts like entire weeks off or fully funded mental health apps can sound great, it’s not always possible for every business. And it doesn’t have to be.

What Does Good Mental Health Management Look Like?

The most important part of good mental health management is twofold: intention and action. You need to genuinely care about the mental wellbeing of your employees, and then you need to take concrete steps to help support them. But these steps don’t need to be giant, and they don’t need to be the same as your competitor or any other business. Here are some options that you might consider when you are looking into building out your mental health policies.

  • Educate employees about mental health benefits—While people are talking about mental health more now than ever before, there are likely still some gaps in your employees’ understanding, especially when it comes to how you are able to support them and what their options are if they need help.
  • Assess your health insurance and benefits—What mental health services are covered? Ensuring your plans cover services like mental health screenings and therapy/counseling can be a huge help to employees who may be struggling.
  • Include mental health time off in your paid sick leave or PTO plans—Your employees may not know they can, or may not feel empowered to, use their paid sick time or PTO for mental health reasons.
  • Offer short-term disability coverage—This can help employees who may need a longer leave of absence or are struggling with more acute mental health concerns.
  • Consider employee assistance programs (EAP)EAPs can provide free counseling, assessments, referrals, and follow-up services for employees outside of their normal health coverage.
  • Train managers and leadership on how to identify struggling employees—it’s important to arm supervisors with information and training on how to help employees. This is especially important because mental health issues are often covered by ADA protections, meaning employees may require reasonable accommodations and cannot be fired over their illness.
  • Include mental health in your day-to-day communications—By promoting mental health with your employees regularly, you encourage more open and transparent dialogue and can more easily spot employees who may be struggling.
  • Promote physical health as well—Physical health and mental health are very closely tied, so both should be encouraged and talked about regularly and integrated into your company culture.
  • Emphasize a healthy work-life balance—Implementing a good work-life balance means employees have better boundaries so that work stressors are less likely to negatively affect their personal life and vice-versa.
  • Encourage taking breaks during the day— Frequent, small breaks can help limit the amount of stress that accumulates for employees and contributes to a more healthy workplace overall.

No matter what you choose to do, make sure to communicate how much you care for your employees. You want them to know that their health and safety, all facets of it, are a priority to you. They should also know exactly what options and services are available to them and how to use them, should they be struggling with their mental health.

Final Thoughts

Mental health is one of the most pervasive and impactful health issues facing today’s workforce. It’s critical that employers understand the implications of these issues and know how to talk about and address them within their own businesses. The more that mental health and well-being are discussed in the workplace, the more people are going to feel encouraged to get help, and the better employees’ mental health will be.

2022 Employee Safety Report

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