mental health

Managing Workplace Mental Health: A step-by-step guide for employers

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to review and promote workplace policies, procedures, plans and benefits surrounding mental health. It’s also an ideal time to focus on initiatives aimed at managing workplace stressors. Businesses have a vested interest in maintaining a workplace with limited stress. Happy employees are more productive, more engaged, and less likely to have excessive absenteeism which typically results in disruptions to workflow and reduced profitability. Work environments that promote mental health and stress management also report fewer incidents of harassment claims and higher percentages of employee satisfaction.

How can managers, executives and business owners help establish a culture where empowered and accountable employees are healthy, engaged and work together towards a common mission?

This is a complicated topic, and a single solution does not exist. Businesses are like people; each one has its own personality and quirks and they come in all shapes and sizes. What is right for a public employer with 10,000 employees won’t fly at the family-owned deli around the corner staffed by a handful of part-time workers. The onus is on leadership to know their business and their employees and balance the needs of both.

Even though no single solution can be applied to every company for a successful mental health campaign, any organization can follow the steps outlined below to align employees’ objectives with organizational goals.  

Step One: Value wellness

Continuously express the value of mental health. Employees should feel confident that their employer truly values the wellness of the people who work there, so business leaders should say and show this frequently. Everyone should be encouraged to take full advantage of their time off and fully “unplug” during these times. Executives and managers should demonstrate these values by taking their allotted paid time off and promoting self-care.

To help employees successfully take time off, employers should frequently review staffing to ensure coverage is always met. Employees often can feel reluctant to take time off if they face issues with being understaffed or if they return from time off to find themselves buried in work that came in while they were absent. This discourages employees from taking future time off due to the burden and stress of coming back to objectives and deadlines that are now mounting and late. That does not make for relaxing time off to properly recharge.

Leadership can also encourage employees to take full advantage of health benefits, flexible working hours, life, and disability insurance, when applicable, and other perks the company can offer. Examples include telecommuting, mentoring, discounts for entertainment and gym memberships, team-building events, employee clubs based on common interests such as sports, the arts, or hobbies and participation in committees based on company initiatives such as diversity, equity and inclusion, community outreach and charitable giving.

Encourage employees take a few minutes every couple of hours to simply rest their eyes, take deep breaths, stand up and move about their work area or just step outside for a few minutes to take in air and sunshine. It is the company’s responsibility to ensure benefits are affordable and accessible.

Step Two: Awareness of symptoms  

Sometimes, the first clue that an employee is struggling with mental health is poor performance. While there is a business need to ensure all employees are working at their best ability, managers should be careful not to immediately jump to placing an employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) — also known as a Performance Success Plan — at the first sign of lost productivity or behavioral concerns.

Common signs of mental unwellness:

  1. Poor concentration
  2. Sleep disturbances
  3. Lack of appetite
  4. Overuse of mind-altering substances
  5. Excessive worrying

Any of the symptoms above could result in reduced productivity.

Regular one-on-ones are the company’s best ally in keeping close, routine contact with employees, especially in remote environments when in-person interactions are limited or nonexistent. At a minimum, managers should conduct monthly meetings with individual employees that include at least ten to fifteen minutes of “off-the-cuff” conversation in a meeting lasting one hour. During this casual aspect of the meeting, managers can use open-ended questions to determine if an employee has underlying signs or symptoms pointing towards a struggle with mental health and take prompt and positive action to address performance or behavioral issues.

Step Three: Encourage employees to seek help with mental health resources

When available, direct employees to the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where they will find trained experts to assist the employee and further direct them to the support services they may need. Additional low- and no-cost solutions available include:

  1. The National Alliance on Mental Illness https://www.nami.org/Home
  2. The U.S. Department of Labor – Mental Health https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/mental-health
  3. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline https://988lifeline.org/ Dial: 988
  4. HopeLine https://www.hopeline-nc.org/ (877) 235-4525
  5. Crisis Text Line https://www.crisistextline.org/ Text: 741741
  6. Suicide.org http://www.suicide.org/index.html (800) 784-2433 and State-by-State Hotlines
  7. Local religious affiliation services
  8. Family and friends

Step Four: Establish a contingency plan

Contingency plans are a best practice for any sudden and unexpected changes, whether due to a mental health crisis, a sudden illness or accident, an unanticipated need to care for a family member or any other unforeseeable reason. Employees will sometimes need to be unexpectedly out of the office for a long duration. Business needs should dictate these contingency plans. The best time to have them in place is before they are needed.

Cross-training within departments and communication across functions should happen often and continuously. Each role in the business should be broken down into its most essential functions so backup plans can be established. Who covers when someone is on vacation or out sick? The answer to this question will help lead to the more in-depth long-term plans that may be needed in the future. Temp agencies are also a great resource for short- and long-term planning and a relationship should be developed with one before deadlines become emergent.

Step Five: Crisis response

In an acute crisis where the employee is openly communicating plans for suicide, the employee should not be left alone. First, remove any objects that can pose a danger to the employee. Next, contact emergency services, either 911 or 988, or get the employee to the nearest emergency room or clinic.

Even when companies put forth their best efforts to establish supportive working environments and promote mental health, suicides still happen. If a tragedy occurs, swift and professional crisis management are key in expressing sensitivity to the remaining employees while keeping the business running. Maintain an open dialogue and allow employees time and space to grapple with their feelings while continuing to meet business objectives.

Consider long-term, on-site resources to promote continued mental health and support for the employees who remain after a crisis. Employees are the most important asset of a business, and their health should be a top priority.

Author: Nikki Blanche

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