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How companies are learning to talk about mental health, and how your company can too

by Kelton Wright

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Some sick days are obvious: a bad cough, a broken wrist, food poisoning. We sit out work for fevers, colds, and injuries just by shooting over an email to our boss. At many companies, it’s even understood when you need to sneak out for a dental appointment or a doctor’s visit.

 

But what about when the sick day is for mental health? Or when the doctor’s visit is actually therapy? What are companies doing to normalize the health of our minds?

In any given year, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness, but only 41% receive any type of mental health service. Many of them are also keeping it a secret from work. Mental health still carries with it a stigma, and employees may feel concern that they’ll be judged for discussing it openly, or worse, held back professionally.

But not talking about mental health is bad for business. Serious mental illness costs the U.S. over $190 billion in lost earnings every year. The CDC reports that depression alone is estimated to result in over 200 million lost workdays yearly as well. The only verbiage most employees are familiar with when it comes to taking a day to relieve stress is “playing hooky”: notoriously associated with skipping out just for fun.

We need to create a better framework for taking care of our minds at work. And some companies are doing just that.

Who’s stepping up

The American Psychological Association conducted a survey in 2016 that found that under 50% of working adults in the U.S. felt that their companies supported the wellbeing of their employees, but that landscape is changing, and it’s not just in smaller companies. Large companies like Aetna and Unilever are stepping up to support mental health, too.

– Aetna introduced a mindfulness initiative to their employees, and estimates that they saved $3000 per employee per year on potentially lost productivity. In their first year implementing the mindfulness program, healthcare costs fell 7%, saving the company over $6 million.

– Unilever is encouraging managers through their global health initiative to take workshops to recognize signs of mental health distress. Sometimes, the manager is the most important part: in that same APA survey, 73% of employees said their companies help them to develop a healthy lifestyle simply because their senior managers showed support and commitment to well-being initiatives.

– Smaller companies like Influence & Co. are taking initiatives, too. In 2016, the company made a plan to rewrite their mental health policy, aiming to be more forward-thinking and inclusive. Their plan worked to change the attitude toward mental health from the top down.

How it affects business

In 2016, the World Health Organization reported if treatment for mental health wasn’t scaled up, the world would lose 12 billion workdays to depression and anxiety disorders by 2030.

And it’s not just days out of the office that count, but days in the office with reduced productivity. Because there is often no precedent for taking a sick day for a mental health issue, many employees still attend work, but aren’t able to focus, which only serves to increase stress and amplify the problem. In a Harvard Business Review white paper, it was reported that “significant cost savings” have been shown when mental health initiatives are implemented in the workplace.

Happy employees are 12% more productive than unhappy ones.

In a survey done by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than half the people surveyed with workplace anxiety reported feeling unmotivated and fatigued. Exhaustion and lack of motivation due to anxiety causes employees to need more time to complete tasks. The hours of lost productivity add up.

It’s worth it to care about your employees’ mental wellbeing. Happy employees show increased loyalty and are more productive than unhappy ones — 12% more productive to be exact.

What it looks like

The conversations companies are having around mental health are as broad as they are nuanced. In 2017, an email exchange between an employee and her boss at a Michigan-based live-chat platform went viral for its take on mental health. The woman sent an email to her team letting them know she would be taking a couple of days for her mental health, expecting to return full force the next week. Her boss replied thanking her for cutting through the stigma. He used emails like that as a “reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health.”

Large companies like Barclays broached the subject by empowering employees to tell their individual stories of mental health in their “This is Me” campaign. The campaign started with nine employees, and now features nearly 200 stories and has been visited over 60,000 times.

When managers support wellness initiatives, employees feel more supported. 

And of course many more companies are adding mindfulness training to their wellness programs. Mindfulness has been shown to improve employee wellbeing when measuring job satisfaction, psychological need satisfaction, and even emotional exhaustion. Mindfulness also improves compassion and resilience, improving relationships in the office and how employees respond to difficult situations.*

The very idea of implementing a mindfulness program also shows that a company is thinking about the minds of its employees. Striking up a conversation about training the mind can open the door to broader conversations about our mental wellbeing and health.

How to implement

There are a few basic steps every company can take to embrace better conversations around mental health in the workplace.

  1. Write your policy. Define what you want your mental health policy to accomplish, then do some research to write a rough draft. After you’ve loosely outlined your the policy, start working with a mental health expert and legal to make sure the policy is inclusive and thoughtful.
  2. Share from the top down. When managers support wellness initiatives, employees feel more supported. Empower your managers and leaders with mental health training so they too feel supported.
  3. Normalize taking care of your mind. Introduce opportunities for employees to focus on their mental wellbeing, both inside and outside the office. An app-based mindfulness training program like Headspace, which has been proven to reduce stress, can be a great way to help employees and encourage conversation.

To learn more about how to support your employees, read our new white paper, Stress in the Workplace — How Mindfulness Can Help.

 

* Studies did not use Headspace as an intervention

Kelton Wright

Kelton Wright has been working with Headspace since early 2015. She is the author of Anonymous Asked: Life Lessons from the Internet’s Big Sister, as well as the guidebooks City Cycling Los Angeles and City Cycling San Francisco. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @keltonwrites.

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