When Prince Harry revealed in an interview that he had struggled with mental health issues, the topic of mental health in the workplace exploded. Major newspapers in England and the United States ran articles on mental health issues, services and their impact on the workplace. The hashtag #mentalhealth also trended on Twitter.
The Prince’s frank description of facing anxiety while trying to perform his official duties, and of finally seeking professional counseling with the help of his family, resonated with many others. Suddenly, it seemed okay to talk about mental health issues and their challenges. Everyday people shared their own experiences of dealing with stress and depression, including how they try to cope while in the office.
Common Views and Fears
Despite numerous advances in understanding and treatment, many individuals often keep mental and emotional health issues hidden out of fear of being stigmatized. The cultural stereotype is that people should be strong enough to handle their stress and anxieties and keep feelings in check.
For instance, when former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy asked the audience at a symposium whether society considered emotions as a source of strength or weakness, the large majority of respondents replied “weakness.” In the highly competitive world of work, being seen as weak is not acceptable.
Many people who feel burdened by stress and depression on the job do not use stress reduction techniques to prevent becoming overwhelmed. They frequently fear upsetting co-workers, losing their job or being overlooked for a promotion. However, ignoring stress or depression is more likely to lead to becoming overwhelmed by the situation, which can result in negative consequences.
No workplace is immune to mental health issues. Daily, any number of employees may be dealing with stress, a psychological disorder, or a personal tragedy. Supervisors and managers who are not trained to spot risk factors for depression and signs of stress may confirm the fears that an employee with mental health issues has by taking disciplinary actions against them.
Even worse for some is the possibility that a manager may unknowingly engage in the soft discrimination of low expectations. One young woman, who had revealed her mental health treatment to her employer, reported that she often worries her managers won’t assign her to important projects out of concern that she “can’t handle the stress.”
Mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and the fears surrounding them can affect the workplace in a variety of different ways. Such issues can influence an employee’s overall performance and relationships with supervisors and co-workers. For example, employees who are suffering from depression are more likely to be:
- Frequently absent;
- Easily distracted;
- Less productive; and
- Involved in workplace accidents.
Employer that fail to think of mental health as a pressing workforce concern do so at their peril. According to MentalHealth.gov, in 2014:
- One in five American adults experienced some type of mental health issue; and
- One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness (e.g., major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder).
Promoting Mental Health
So what can employers do to develop a workplace culture that is attentive to employees who may be dealing with mental health issues?
It is important for an employer to develop a strategic wellness plan that includes promoting mental well-being in the workplace. The strategies should be integrated into a variety of policies and practices, including:
- Monitoring workplace mental well-being using employee surveys, absence data, etc.;
- Designating an HR manager or other senior manager to be responsible for promoting mental health;
- Encouraging a healthy workplace culture of open communication and inclusion;
- Emphasizing and encouraging personal employee development;
- Ensuring that employees are equipped to cope with changes in the workplace;
- Fostering a culture that helps employees have a healthy work-life balance; and
- Promoting benefits that help employees achieve mental health, such as employer-based health services and employee assistance programs.
Employers also need to understand and comply with employment laws that might come into play when an employee is dealing with mental health issues. Such laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state or local laws.
More to Come on Mental Health Awareness
After sharing his struggle to achieve mental wellness, Prince Harry helped launch Heads Together, a mental health initiative to help others do the same. Employers can also take steps to help their workers; if it’s good for the prince, it’s good for employees.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, stay tuned for two more blog posts focusing on mental health in the workplace. The first will address FMLA and ADA compliance when employees are dealing with mental health issues, and the second will focus on how mental health intersects with the employee benefits world.
Editor’s Note: XpertHR Legal Editor Jessica Webb-Ayer also contributed significantly to this piece.
What does your organization do to promote mental well-being in your workforce?