Bosses, it starts with you.
All bosses (hopefully) want what's best for their employees. Whether you have one intern or manage a large team, you probably do what you can to make sure they feel safe, happy, and fulfilled at work. That's great, because most people spend the majority of their waking moments at work, and it can have a significant effect on your mental health and wellbeing.
That's why it's so important to make sure that your work environment is one that's open and understanding of mental health needs. Right now, your employees could be dealing with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues in the workplace, and it could be affecting their work. And while there's a fine line between being supportive and being intrusive in this situation, there are actionable steps you can take to make your office a better place for your employees. And it will be worth it—both for your employees and for your office’s productivity.
“We need to accept that mental illness, like any other chronic illness, will become debilitating if it is left unaddressed,” Stephen W. Smith, an administrator at Illinois behavioral and mental health treatment organization Rosecrance, tells SELF. “To pretend that it will not impact the workplace is an exercise in futility. To ignore the symptoms will only lead to more self-destructive behaviors and ultimately to a greater downturn in workplace productivity.”
Pretending that mental health concerns are best left out of the office could even end up costing you money. According to a 2016 study, people with untreated mental health issues take 5 percent more days off work; and considering that mental health issues affect one in four people, according to the World Health Organization, this is probably affecting your office—whether you know it or not.
So how can employers make their office a better place for those with mental illness? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Most importantly, break the silence.
“The best way to combat stigma is to begin the conversation; talk about the resources, talk about the impact, talk about the benefits of getting treatment,” Smith tells SELF. “The more we do this, the more we ‘normalize’ it, the more we chip away at the stigma.”
Make it clear that this is a welcoming and supportive space for your employees, and that they shouldn’t be afraid of repercussions should they speak up about mental health. Obviously the way you do this will depend on the overall vibe of your workspace, but the idea is to open up the discussion while not pressuring anyone to disclose something they'd rather keep private. You could work with your human resources department to create a memo detailing how employees can go about discussing mental health within the company; or you could hold a meeting or seminar to let employees know that you're dedicated to improving mental health in the workplace.
Then make sure to provide next steps—like offering voluntary check-ins and telling your employees that you’re happy to have a conversation about reasonable accommodations they may need.
2. If you have no idea where to start, consult an Employee Assistance Professional (EAP).
As someone's supervisor, it can be difficult—and sometimes even inappropriate—to speak with your employees about their mental health. That’s where an Employee Assistance Professional (EAP) comes in. As licensed mental health counselor Nicoletta Nance, Ph.D., of Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, tells SELF, EAPs are trained professionals who can teach supervisors about mental health and how to handle sensitive issues.
According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), EAPs are designed to assist companies in "addressing productivity issues" and employees in "identifying and resolving personal concerns" through applying their mental health expertise.
Proper training and research is essential to addressing mental health in the workplace and fostering a positive and supportive community. You don't want to end up overstepping a boundary or making your staff feel uncomfortable. “Employers should offer training to managers and leadership teams on identifying and addressing mental health illness appropriately,” Valerie Kading, DNP, chief medical officer for Arizona-based hospital Sierra Tucson and formerly practicing board-certified mental health nurse practitioner, tells SELF. If this isn't available at your company, talk to HR about implementing it.
3. Provide (or advocate for) mental health resources at your company.
Susan Warner, an employment attorney at New York City law firm Nelson Mullins, tells SELF this is the biggest way employers can make an impact in their office. “The best thing an employer can do proactively to accommodate employees’ mental health needs is to provide a health care plan that includes mental health services, such as counseling or therapy,” she says.
The amount of power you have over this, of course, heavily depends on your position. However, if your company already offers significant mental health coverage, remember to encourage your employees to use it while making it clear they would not be judged or stigmatized if they do so. If your plan leaves much to be desired in the realm of mental health, it’s worth inquiring with relevant departments in your company to see what you can do to improve your employees’ benefits. While the ACA requires insurance plans to offer at least the minimum mental health coverage, what your specific company offers will vary, and your company may be able to provide them at a corporate discount even if your insurer won't cover them.
If mental health benefits aren’t included in your employees’ health packages, and there’s no feasible way in the near future to improve them, you can contact local providers—like fitness experts, counseling centers, and massage therapists—to set up an employee discount program.
4. Regularly check in with your staff.
Meeting regularly with your employees and maintaining open communication lines is key. “Regular meetings and check-in sessions will also increase trust and build a culture of acceptance and openness," Dr. Kading says. "This will also give the managers an opportunity to determine if the staff member appears to be overwhelmed or overly stressed.”
One way to do this is to poll your employees about whether they’d be interested in regular check-ins, and to ask how often they’d like them; one employee may welcome a weekly meeting while another may find it to be too much to deal with.
It’s also essential to watch out for any employees that exhibit a sudden dip in productivity or marked personality changes. If you’re worried about an employee who appears to really be struggling, it's important to set up a meeting that won't intimidate or frighten them. "Choose an appropriate place to meet with the employee," Dr. Kading says. "Choose a quiet, private, and non-threatening environment where the employee will feel comfortable." When you meet, you can ask them open-ended questions about how they're feeling with their workload, their job, and their workplace environment. From there, you can work with your employee to identify ways to better their situation, whether that’s by changing their workload, adding some work-from-home days, or getting them in touch with company resources.
Of course, not everyone is going to want to open up about their mental health with their boss, and that's OK, too. Make sure that your employees don't feel obligated to open up, but that they also know there are resources available to them if they need them.
5. Help your employees create a work-life balance, and lead by example.
Focus on making your office culture a relaxing, patient, and enriching environment with programs and classes. “Offering yoga or meditation during lunch breaks or after work can also reduce work stress and improve mental health,” Dr. Kading says. Other welcome mental health benefits might include employer-sponsored gym memberships and sufficient personal days.
Just as crucial: Encouraging your employees to actually take time off from work and not work longer hours than they need to. If you're noticing that an employee is regularly overworking themselves, it's time to check in to see how they're handling their workload and if there are ways that you can help.
Keep in mind that employees often look to their bosses to set the tone when it comes to taking time off and being accessible when out of the office. So be aware of the tone you're setting if you're sending emails at 2 a.m. or calling in to meetings when you're on vacation. Even if you don't expect them to be as available as you are, that may very well be the signal you're sending. Be transparent about your time-off policies (including how often employees should request off and just how "off" they can be) so there's no confusion.
6. Be open to making reasonable accommodations.
You may want all your employees in the office at all times, but consider what you’d do if an employee asked for a work-from-home day once every two weeks. Remain flexible and be prepared to make changes.
“If an employee informs her employer that she has a condition and needs an accommodation, the employer and employee should work together and have a dialogue about what accommodations the employee will need to perform her job,” Warner says. “For example, if the employee needs to take two hours off of work each week to visit a counselor and her schedule can be arranged to allow for those visits, this would likely be a reasonable accommodation that the employer can and should make.”
Addressing mental health in the workplace may seem like an insurmountable task, but it starts with small, intentional steps.
This article originally appeared in Self on October 27, 2017. Sammy Nickalls is a mental health advocate and founder of #TalkingAboutIt, an online community focused on busting stigmas about mental illness. She’s on Facebook and can be found on Twitter - twitter.com/sammynickalls.