All employees have distinct psychological needs. When managing a large group of people, you will generally be unaware of what the full extent of these needs are. You may know a fair amount about each employee’s personality and motivations, but you won’t know, for example, which employees have mental illness, which are dealing with immense stress in their personal lives, and which need help drawing healthy work-life boundaries. As a manager, it is not your job to serve as a therapist to your employees, nor is it appropriate for you to provide excessive emotional support. However, it is vital that your management approach and policies are accommodating to people of a variety of mental health needs (Goetzel et al, 2002). This dossier reviews empirical research on how managers can nourish mental health in their employees – by combatting mental health stigma, intervening productively in times of high stress, and enacting policies that help employees thrive no matter their mental health status (Moll et al, 2015).
Re-thinking mental health: unfair stereotypes and misconceptions dominate our understanding
Most managers only think intentionally about employee mental health in times of crisis. If an employee is experiencing extreme stress or evident mental health symptoms, it is often clear to both management and HR that it is time to respond. However, such a reactionary approach leaves managers unaware of their employees’ needs until a significant accommodation or response is required (Cooper & Cartwright, 1994). It is often preferable to take a proactive, preventative approach instead. By valuing the mental health of all employees, not merely those in crisis, you can forestall issues, limit crises, and help employees to thrive when their functioning is not optimal (Goetzel et al, 2002).
In order to be responsive to your employees’ mental health needs, you will probably need to educate yourself and combat some common misconceptions about human psychology. First, examine your own management strategies for signs of unintentional mental health bias (Clement et al, 2015). Do you assume that mistakes, missed deadlines, or low motivation are personal failings in most instances? If an employee’s mannerisms, way of speaking, or work habits are a bit unusual, but harmless, do you try to make them change? What are your attitudes toward having mentally ill employees? Do you see mental illness or disability as a deficit?
When mental health issues are ignored or not spoken about, larger problems emerge down the line
Most people harbor some unfair stereotypes about persons with mental illness, managers are no exception. Unfortunately, these attitudes can create a workplace culture where mental health struggles are not discussed or accommodated, which can lead to larger problems down the line (Moll et al, 2015). To address this, work with HR to educate yourself and combat mental health stigma. Your employees can probably benefit from such an education as well. Consider holding a workshop for your employees in which mental illness is discussed in accepting, non-blaming language.
In addition to taking these steps, you can familiarize yourself with research on mental illness and disability, including the work that outlines benefits that people with unique perspectives and experiences can bring to your organization (Beaussart et al, 2014). For example, employees with mental illness may bring unique creative insights into your workplace, or may be sensitive to concerns that would not cross the minds of those without mental illness. Consider, also, the prevalence of mental illness in the workforce – a large minority of workers will experience depression, anxiety, or related illnesses at some point in their lives. The prevalence of these conditions makes it vital that you approach them with compassion and understanding (Hoertel et al, 2015). You will almost certainly have valued employees who experience mental illness at some point in time.
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How can mental health be improved at the workplace?
When approaching employee mental health, a growth mindset is often useful. Put simply, everyone can benefit from access to mental health assistance. Work is often stressful, and your employees’ lives are challenging and complicated. It follows, then, that nearly any worker stands to gain from mental health resources and interventions (Hurley et al, 2016). And by providing mental health resources to everyone in your employ, you can prevent larger issues from developing in many cases.
Mental health coverage.
First, make sure your employee benefits provide mental health coverage, if at all possible. Inform employees about this coverage, and encourage them to take advantage of what they have available. Within the workplace, provide optional activities that are socially and psychologically soothing – for example, workshops on meditation or deep breathing exercises. Many employees benefit psychologically from being provided regular breaks, fidget toys that they can fiddle with at their desks, and access to quiet, dimly lit spaces to relax and recharge (Reavley et al, 2014). Workshops on managing conflict and communicating with peers can also train employees to discuss their feelings and frustrations in productive ways – benefitting both the company and employees internal lives in the process.
Fostering a sense of community.
Another way to improve employee mental health is by fostering a strong sense of community (Haslam et al, 2016). When employees feel supported and interconnected, they are better able to manage stress and cope with change. Consider forming social groups within your organization that address employee needs – for example, exercise groups, smoking cessation groups, or groups for minority employees who have to cope with marginalizing experiences such as racism or homophobia. Make sure that your HR professionals are trained to handle mental health concerns and interpersonal conflict with care and competence. These steps can help your employees feel psychologically supported within your organization.
Company policies can accommodate mental health needs with small tweaks
Often, one of the best ways to improve employee mental health is by tweaking the general policies that guide your organization (Hurley et al, 2016). You may wish to consult with human resources, or with psychological consultants, to identify the policies in place at your organization that make harder for employees with mental health symptoms. For example, does your sick leave policy accommodate illnesses such as depression, panic attacks, or grief? If not, consider revising the policies to make coverage for such situations explicit.
Flexibility in workplace policies often benefits employee mental health. For example, employees who are offered flexible scheduling or the option to sometimes work from home often report greater mental health and lower workplace stress (Haar et al, 2014). Policies that trust employees to make responsible decisions are often broadly beneficial – for example, rather than having rigid rules about when and how an employee can miss work for a doctor’s appointment, loosen the reigns a bit; this makes it easier for employees with mental health needs to unobtrusively schedule therapy or address other emergencies (Huff & Ablah, 2016). The fewer barriers that there are to seeking help, the more likely an employee will be to take good care of themselves. When your policies are accommodating and empowering, employees also tend to feel more valued by their workplace as well.
Address employee mental health proactively, rather than waiting for a crisis
Combat workplace attitudes that discourage seeking help for mental health issues
Provide employees with relaxing activities, a quiet, dim space to get away from workplace stress, and access to therapeutic resources
Help employees to form social supports within their organization, especially if employees are dealing with illness, stress, or marginalization
Grant employees flexibility in scheduling and the use of sick days, so that needs can be addressed proactively and privately
References and further reading
Beaussart, M. L., White, A. E., Pullaro, A., & Kaufman, J. C. (2014). Reviewing recent empirical findings on creativity and mental illness. Creativity and Mental Illness, 42.
Clement, S., Schauman, O., Graham, T., Maggioni, F., Evans-Lacko, S., Bezborodovs, N., & Thornicroft, G. (2015). What is the impact of mental health-related stigma on help-seeking? A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies. Psychological Medicine, 45(1), 11-27.
Cooper, C. L., & Cartwright, S. (1994). Healthy mind; healthy organization—A proactive approach to occupational stress. Human relations, 47(4), 455-471.
Goetzel, R. Z., Ozminkowski, R. J., Sederer, L. I., & Mark, T. L. (2002). The business case for quality mental health services: why employers should care about the mental health and well-being of their employees. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 44(4), 320-330.
Haar, J. M., Russo, M., Suñe, A., & Ollier-Malaterre, A. (2014). Outcomes of work–life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 85(3), 361-373.
Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Haslam, S. A., Dingle, G., & Chang, M. X. L. (2016). Groups 4 Health: Evidence that a social-identity intervention that builds and strengthens social group membership improves mental health. Journal of Affective Disorders, 194, 188-195.
Hoertel, N., McMahon, K., Olfson, M., Wall, M. M., Rodríguez-Fernández, J. M., Lemogne, C., ... & Blanco, C. (2015). A dimensional liability model of age differences in mental disorder prevalence: evidence from a national sample. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 64, 107-113.
Huff, J., & Ablah, E. (2016). Stress and Presenteeism Among Kansas Hospital Employees: What Stress Reduction Interventions Might Hospitals Benefit From Offering to Employees?. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 58(11), e368-e369.
Hurley, J., Hutchinson, M., Bradbury, J., & Browne, G. (2016). Nexus between preventive policy inadequacies, workplace bullying, and mental health: Qualitative findings from the experiences of Australian public sector employees. International Journal of Mental health Nursing, 25(1), 12-18.
Moll, S., Patten, S. B., Stuart, H., Kirsh, B., & MacDermid, J. C. (2015). Beyond silence: protocol for a randomized parallel-group trial comparing two approaches to workplace mental health education for healthcare employees. BMC Medical Education, 15(1), 78.
Dr. Devon Price is a social psychologist, writer, activist, and professor at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Price’s work has appeared in numerous publications such as Slate, The Rumpus, NPR, and HuffPost and has been featured on the front page of Medium numerous times. They live in Chicago, Illinois.