In the USA, approximately one in five adults experience mental illness in any given year. The personal impact, from emotional distress to stymied career development, is a significant consequence for those affected, and the broader economic burden is similarly profound. Serious mental illness costs the USA $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year, and employers are increasingly required to navigate this difficult issue in a professional, supportive and consistent way.
It can be difficult to set in place an effective framework for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, but having a coherent wellness strategy in place can make a big difference, both for the bottom line and the experiences of employees. In this, businesses and other institutions have a big responsibility.
While the monetary burden is something employers have to consider, more important is their influence on the recovery and wellbeing of their staff when they are facing difficulties; inappropriate pressure, unfair dismissal and (even inadvertent) discrimination could have far-reaching consequences for the individuals involved. Anybody which employs staff has a responsibility to assist them as far as is possible when they become unwell, and to take great care in avoiding any action that may exacerbate the issue.
So what kind of wellness strategies should employers put in place?
Understanding Mental Health Issues
The first step in any wellness strategy that focuses on mental health is creating an atmosphere of openness and compassion within the workplace. Mental health issues have been widely misunderstood for many years, and are often also an “invisible illness” which might not be immediately obvious to a casual observer. For instance, someone with anxiety may appear to be coping well while secretly struggling, or an employee who performs brilliantly one day can find they are unable to leave their bed the next.
There’s also a societal perception that people suffering from mental health issues will be more volatile, less reliable, and less capable of competently fulfilling their role. Even if this belief doesn’t actually apply within a workplace, people who have become mentally unwell may be concerned that they’ll be perceived this way, and therefore nervous about coming back to work or being open about their symptoms. There may also be situations in which a person’s mental health issues manifest themselves in overwork and perfectionism.
Employers should endeavor to understand the mental health issues they may encounter in their workforce, using resources such as the charity Mind, WebMD, and the National Wellness Institute to familiarize themselves with the symptoms, personal experiences, and challenges associated with problems like depression. Issues such as grief, stress, and burnout — which can affect anyone — are also important to consider, even if they are more the result of circumstances than a diagnosable mental illness.
Creating information packs for employees can also be extremely helpful. Firstly, it makes anyone who struggles with mental health issues aware that an organization is sympathetic and knowledgeable about mental health, and therefore more able to talk directly about the subject. Secondly, it makes other employees more understanding and less likely to place pressure on their unwell colleagues — as well as cutting down on any insensitive or misguided remarks.
Having a flexible approach to working practices can make a huge difference in the lives of people living with chronic mental health problems, and supports those who are experiencing other emotional difficulties, such as bereavement. For example, someone who suffers from anxiety may have trouble sleeping, or their medication may make them drowsy in the mornings. Shifting or temporarily shortening their hours could help to keep them in work, and retain the skills, knowledge, and input which make them so valuable to the organization.
Flexibility benefits both staff and companies in a variety of ways. It allows staff to return to work more quickly, saving organizations the money they would have spent employing cover and dealing with the shortfall in work. By supporting people back into work, the employer also saves the funds it would require to pay redundancy, as well as recruiting and training a new member of staff. Finally, they won’t miss out on the value that particular employee brings to the role — the reason why they were hired in the first place.
From an employee perspective, when organizations collaborate with them to make returning to work as seamless as possible, they can benefit from a faster recovery and reintegration into the workplace. Returning to work often improves people’s mental health, boosts their confidence, eases financial concerns and provides a social outlet. If an employer can make reasonable adjustments, such as...
- Creating a phased return to work after a period of absence, where the employee works gradually back up to full-time hours over a few weeks or months;
- Being mindful of an employee’s particular needs, such as those with social anxiety being excused from meetings and allowed a private workstation;
Having the option to work from home if facing other people feels overwhelming - for example after losing a family member;
- Allowing employees to see their doctor or therapist within work hours and as often as needed.
- Providing frequent breaks and the option to leave the workplace without prior notice if the employee is experiencing symptom flare-ups, like panic attacks.
...then it makes the working lives of those with mental health issues easier to cope with, and ultimately assists them in regaining their health.
Considering The Impact of Stress
Stress in itself is very damaging, but when combined with poor mental health its impact can be profound - worsening and even triggering mental illnesses in many people. All workplaces should be aware of stress levels amongst their staff, especially as too much stress directly impedes most people’s ability to perform. This lost productivity is an expensive consequence for organizations, and if they become known as a particularly stressful place to work then their reputation may also be damaged.
People tend to work at their optimum in demanding, yet calm, working environments - places where they are challenged, engaged and focused but still generally relaxed, enjoying the “flow” of work. This quickly disintegrates when too much stress is applied: whether that’s through aggressive management, unmanageable workloads, or systematic problems that mean they can’t effectively do their job. People also become stressed if they are constantly interrupted, micromanaged, or pressured into situations they aren’t comfortable with - such as being given sole accountability on a project they aren’t au fait with or told they have to present a pitch.
A stressful and chaotic working environment will impact the mental health of the majority of people who work within it, as burnout and panic begin to wear everyone down. Much of the solution to this lies in working practices and company policy, which will vary from organization to organization depending on the particular demands of their service or industry. However, they are other strategies which most organizations can apply which will help prevent damaging levels of stress:
- Encouraging a good work/life balance. Organizations should make it clear that no one is expected to work outside of office hours, and that work emails shouldn’t be read or answered in an employee’s time off.
- Pay fairly and include good employee benefits. This is something that may be easier said than done, especially in small businesses, but low wages, not enough holiday time and poor sickness pay can be hugely stressful parts of any job.
- Providing opportunities for employees to discuss any issues they have confidentially while ensuring that their concerns are addressed and resolved.
- Implementing a workplace well-being program where employees are supported in living happily and healthily; through meditation classes, the appointment of a wellbeing officer and distributing advice.
Providing meditation classes — as Google and Nike have done — and if possible a calming space where employees can go to meditate, is one way to help people de-stress. Studies from Harvard neuroscientists have demonstrated physical changes in the brains of meditators, where the “stress center” (known as the amygdala) decreases in volume — convincing physical evidence of meditation’s positive impact on the experience of stress.
This has further implications for mental health problems like anxiety (https://www.willwilliamsmeditation.co.uk/why-meditate/mind/anxiety/), where sufferers feel a constant sense of danger because their amygdala is in high alert, even if there is no real threat. In teaching techniques like meditation, and allowing time in the day for people to practice them, employers will be providing those who experience poor mental health with a coping mechanism that will help them to better manage their symptoms.
Will Williams is one of Europe’s leading Vedic meditation experts, and a wellbeing advisor to the OECD working group on Education. He has worked with the BBC, American Express, Spotify, Uber and many others in implementing corporate wellbeing programs, and his first book, The Effortless Mind, is available on Amazon.
You can contact him at willwilliamsmeditation.co.uk.