Good mental health is good for business

Workplaces are learning that they play a valuable role in encouraging proactive care of mental health

Jolene Feeney
JOLENE FEENEY Mindful Wellness Counseling

There has been an increased attention given to mental health lately; celebrities advocacy for mental health care via self-disclosure of their own experiences, presence in advertisements or even donations towards mental health organizations, and of course the ongoing dialogue that takes place when tragedy strikes.

Momentum is increasing in the effort to normalize and destigmatize mental health, but we still have a long ways to go. Part of this process is recognizing that we all have mental health, and that our mental health — just like physical health — is on a continuum of good to poor. When we get too far on the “poor” side of the continuum for mental or physical health this is when it becomes and illness.

Part of the shift that needs to continue to take place is to encourage the proactive care of mental health to help prevent mental illness. Workplaces are learning that they play a valuable role in this, as most of our lives are spent at or doing work, and a new approach to employee wellness is part of this shift. Where employee wellness packages and initiatives highlighted physical health, now there is an emphasis on mental health. Think about it. Many professions hire people because of their minds. If we don’t advocate and encourage care around this we are going to lose out on our investments in human capital.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which were developed as an effort to support employees, have existed and evolved since the 1930s. EAPs assist employees with personal problems and/or work-related problems that may impact their job performance, health, and mental and emotional well-being. EAPs generally offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services for employees and their household members.

While 90% of larger companies have EAPs shocking statistics continue to emerge regarding employee engagement, satisfaction and well-being. Unfortunately, while EAPs are useful they miss the mark, and utilization of EAPS has been historically low (7-11% on average). Some reasons for this low utilization include a mistrust of the confidentiality, a lack of emphasis for use of services by leadership and a feeling that there are still too many barriers to getting their needs met or a “what is three sessions going to do” attitude, not to mention our culture’s “suck it up” attitude towards problems.

The Gallup Group released research recently that indicated 87% of the workforce is either not engaged (they are there physically but not mentally or emotionally), or totally disengaged. This is the highest rate of disengagement ever measured, despite organizations having employee recognition programs and EAPs. While there isn’t one reason for this, it is important to acknowledge that for the first time, millennials make up the majority of the workforce, with Generation Z following behind. Millennials have a different understanding of what work should be and how they should be treated.

The mental well-being of employees hit a five-year low in 2018, showing that symptoms of depression among employed Happify users increased 18%. Alarmingly, the prevalence of depressive symptoms are jumping dramatically in the Millennial and Generation Z employees.

The World Health Organization estimates by 2020 major depression will be second only to ischemic heart disease in the amount of disability experienced by sufferers. Those with anxiety and depression experience impaired physical and rule functions, more days in bed due to illness, more work days lost, increased impairment at work and high use of health services.

We are at a pivotal revolution in the frontier of supporting employee mental wellness as an essential business benefit. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Salesforce, professional sports organizations, universities and even law companies are taking steps to promote their employees well-being. Solutions have ranged from counseling in the workplace, to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that focus more on knowing who your employees are, to negotiating for the best insurance plans that allow for good mental health care, and of course the ideas of flexible working hours and working from outside of the traditional office space.

What can you do?

The 2018 Annual Sate of Industry Report from Virgin Pulse stated that workplace culture is the biggest roadblock to improving employee engagement.

If you are employee, and you feel like your company culture can benefit from a shift, it is time to start advocating for this to the decision makers in your company.

If you are in employer, one of the first places to start is to really look at what is happening in the place of work. Exploring the number of days sick, average lengths of STD and FTD, employee conflicts, and even talking to the employees about their experiences in the work environment and what they believe would be important. Once you have that information it is easier to prioritize the most effective interventions.

Leadership also plays a large role in this shift as the leaders of the organization role model what is acceptable and what is not. Being able and willing to have conversations that feel uncomfortable is part of this shift, as well as participating in the programs and advocating the usage of the programs (especially outside of times when people are coming to you in struggle).

Ultimately, the key reason for employers to embrace this movement towards putting mental health as a priority is that it makes financial sense.

Jolene Feeney, LMHC, CDP, is the owner of Mindful Wellness Counseling, PLLC, in Vancouver. She can be reached at