An estimated 322 million people worldwide live with depression, including more than 40 million Americans, and up to 56% do not seek treatment. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24, and overdoses are the number one killer of Americans younger than 50. Even in the midst of this widespread crisis, mental health issues continue to be seen as a source of shame, and a result of weakness, laziness or a lack of will.
In the workplace, employees often don’t seek the care they need, and many are left to deal with mental and emotional health issues alone and fear losing their jobs. This is also bad news for employers. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and the CDC estimates depression is the cause of 200 million lost workdays annually — at a $44 billion lost productivity cost.
To counter this growing crisis and productivity loss, employers can work proactively to make it seamless for employees to get help. Here are some key steps employers can take:
Open up the conversation
One of the most important things employers can do is encourage an open, direct approach to addressing mental health — and that discussion must start at the top. FUBU creator and Shark Tank celebrity Daymond John shared how battling dyslexia fueled his entrepreneurship in his book “Rise and Grind,” while Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg detailed her harrowing story of grief and loss in “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resistance and Finding Joy.” Everyone has a story, and business influencers can take note, using blogs, vlogs, books, Ted-talk style presentations and social media with hashtags like #StoptheStigma to candidly discuss mental health.
Conduct an emotional wellness benefits audit
Conduct an emotional wellness benefits audit. Does your employee assistance program offer video chat sessions with clinicians? Are benefits limited or are they open to all family members? What is the referral process for mental health treatment facilities or outpatient programs? What mental health benefits are available in times of crisis, workplace violence, or untimely death of an employee? How effectively are benefits being communicated?
Knock down silos
Many employers already offer a variety of services that support mental health, including EAPs, wellness programs, health and disability insurance, and time off policies — yet benefits are scattered and underutilized. Information about benefits is often vague and buried in random portals or deep in an employee handbook. Employers can magnify the impact of these existing services by cross-promoting benefits and programs and encouraging partnerships among vendors. Connect multiple benefits and services under a unified mental health campaign, and creatively promote benefits year-round. Use engaging messaging across video, text and social media to remove all barriers to access.
Prevent issues from escalating
Financial issues are a top driver of stress. Longtime financial advisor and lawyer Brian Alexander of Alexander & Associates advises, “Don’t overlook budgeting, wills, trusts, prenuptial agreements and college funds when evaluating financial wellness benefits for the workplace.” Other leading causes of stress in the U.S. are job pressure, health, relationships and poor nutrition. Employers can help prevent personal issues from escalating through stronger benefits in those key areas.
Customize solutions based on industry
More than providing personalized support for individual employees, benefit leaders can also assess group support services. My colleague Gilbert Manzano is a proponent of tailoring mental health support services based on organizational needs and shares. Certain industries deal with critical situations and tragedy at much higher rates than typical businesses, he says. Hospitals, adult care centers and multi-location rehabilitation centers should provide quarterly onsite sessions for crisis fatigue. For industries that are at high risk of injury and onsite accidents —drilling, construction, logging and mining — mental wellness should be part of a comprehensive crisis prevention, recovery and workplace safety program. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Offer flexibility and mental wellness perks
Employees might be better able to face conditions like anxiety by working alternative hours or occasionally working from home. Others may simply need flexibility to see a mental health professional or other provider. The entire workforce would benefit from a positive work environment with creative mental wellness perks like walking meetings, stand-up desks, in-house yoga classes, designated meditation areas, and onsite meditation rooms. Benefit managers can consult with employee assistance program partners for ideas on flexible working arrangements, onsite perks, or environmental changes to improve mental wellness.
While the conversation is changing and awareness is growing, mental health issues are still not viewed on par with physical health. Employers can play a major role in pushing mental health out of the shadows and getting employees professional help. After all, a company is only as healthy as its employees.