Mental Health Well-Being and Work: From Theory to Practice
August 19, 2019
Jill Garrison
Timer  Read Time: 5 minutes

‘Mental health’ is a hot topic in the HR and benefits space, but how can managers and organizations as a whole support better employee mental health? What is the current state of mental health in the workplace, and what programs exist to help employees?

We discussed these questions, and more, in our recent webinar with Dr. Conrad and Dr. Cutrono from Ultimate Software. Check out our recap and a link to the full webinar below!

Mental Health Defined 

Mental health is a broader topic than people tend to think. Many people immediately assume that mental health automatically refers to having a mental illness, which is a common misconception.  

Mental health doesn’t just refer to the “big” mental issues—depression, anxiety, etc. Though these are very common, mental health is a bigger concept that relates to overall wellbeing.  

According to the World Health Organization, mental health refers to:

“A state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” 

This definition is fairly broad—which is intentional! Most individuals will struggle with a mental health issue at some point or another in our lives. Mental health struggles are very common, yet there’s still a stigma surrounding mental health and asking for help.  

Only about 17% of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health. 

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves for high performance and success, and we tend to only think of our physical health. Or, we might recognize and treat an extreme mental health problem but ignore the in between—the days we feel sad, the work stress, etc.—which can quickly compound and result in a more serious mental health condition.

As noted before, mental illness doesn’t just refer to the “big” categories, like depression and anxiety. There are several signs and symptoms to keep on your radar.

By The Numbers: Current State of Mental Health

Despite outward appearances, mental health issues are very prevalent. 

Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (45+ million) experiences a mental illness in a given year. 

Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11+ million) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially inferferes with or limits one or more major life activities. 

We live in a high-pressure society, and sometimes the stress becomes too much. However, it’s important to remember that we can actively manage those stressors; we just need to programs in place to help identify and manage signs and symptoms. Mental health issues can eventually result in burnout, lower productivity, higher absenteeism, etc. — all of which are detrimental to an organization. 

It’s time to recognize mental health as an important part of total wellness and acknowledge our shortcomings in dealing with it at work. What are we doing to address a stressful work environment? What can we do to break the stigma about discussing mental health? How can we engage everyone in the organization, from the C-Suite down, with mental health initiatives? 

Despite the prevalence of mental health issues, not many people are getting help. Nearly 50% of adults with a serious mental health issue are not being treated. 

Even the people that are seeking help are not able to access a doctor in a timely manner. There is a massive shortage of mental health practitioners—psychiatrists, psychologists, outpatient treatment centers, training among general practitioners on how to screen individuals, etc.—which leaves the system overwhelmed. Over 115 million people in the U.S. live in designated Health Professional Shortage Areas where the ratio of mental health professionals to residents is smaller than 1 per 30,000 people.

On top of that, mental health professionals are often the lowest paid compared to other medical fields. And, insurance doesn’t have a great history of covering mental health-related services, which only exacerbates the issue.  

It’s Time For A New Approach

We’ve explored some of the challenges in the world of mental health… so what can be done?

It’s time for a new approach to mental health. It’s time to humanize the workplace and to give employees the support they need to thrive—physically, emotionally and mentally.

Making employees feel comfortable discussing mental health issues in the workplace and educating them on available resources is the first step to embracing a culture of change.

It’s also important to train managers to recognize signs of mental health issues in employees and how to educate and empower employees to seek help—though this only works if employees feel comfortable enough to come forward.

Another issue is that managers are struggling to figure out what’s going on with employees and when there’s a problem – and technology can help! Advancements in sentiment analysis, natural language processing and AI can help managers decode and interpret written communications to help identify any underlying issues—and that’s just one example. Managers don’t have to do it alone; there are tools out there that can interpret emotions and determine the appropriate approach for each individual.

The 2018 Workplace Wellness Report found that workplace stress can have serious implications on employees’ professional and personal lives, including interpersonal relationships and engagement in potentially dangerous behaviors. It’s important for managers to recognize signs and symptoms of a mental health issue early before the problem escalates into something more serious.

What You Can Do

Everyone in the organization has a role! Wellness starts with the culture. Ask yourself—what kind of culture have you created? Can people be open and honest and authentic? Can people open up without fear of repercussions? These are just a few examples of programs and perks you can offer to support mental health in the workplace.

  • Productive atmosphere
  • Livable wage
  • Reasonable accommodation
  • Health, Wellness and Environment (EAP)
  • Open communication
  • Employee accountability
  • Management accountability
  • Work/life balance
  • Clear & positive values
  • Fitness

And in case you’re wondering—YES, wellness programs are worth the investment. In fact, studies have shown that for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. How’s that for a return on investment?

Bottom line: supporting mental health in the workplace is important! People want it, it makes sense and it’s worth the investment.

Be sure to watch the full webinar with Dr. Conrad and Dr. Cutrono below, and learn more about our partnership with Ultimate Software.

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