7 Ways to (Effectively) Address Mental Health in the Workplace

The American Heart Association says it all comes down to shifting your organizational culture.
By: | April 2, 2019 • 4 min read
employees' mental health

We are in the midst of a global mental-health crisis.

In just the last decade, anxiety diagnoses have ballooned by 20 percent and depression by 15 percent, while a recent Harris Poll found more than three-quarters of U.S. employees surveyed have struggled with a mental-health issue. With employees typically spending more time working than on any other activity, mental health is squarely in the wheelhouse of employers—but effectively tackling mental health in the workplace means digging much deeper than basic policies and programs.

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The American Heart Association’s CEO Roundtable recently released Mental Health: Workforce in Crisis, featuring a deep dive into mental-health interventions, case studies from many of the 40 Roundtable members—many of the nation’s largest companies, whose workforces together include more than 10 million members —and a national employee survey. Among the key takeaways of the report are seven actionable strategies employers can take to engender an organizational culture that equates mental health with physical health—a correlation with which more than 95 percent of surveyed employees agreed.

The seven strategies include:

  • Leadership—Role model a mental-health-friendly workplace from the upper echelons.
  • Organizational/Environmental Support—Implement an accessible mental-health plan
  • Communication—Frequently share information about policies, programs, benefits, resources and training.
  • Programs and Benefits—Offer comprehensive benefits that center mental health.
  • Engagement—Invite employees at all levels to take part in decision-making about mental health in the workplace.
  • Community Partnerships—Involve community stakeholders in executing the mental-health plan.
  • Reporting Outcomes: Continuously enhance offerings to improve employee wellbeing.

American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown recently spoke with HRE about how employers can use these strategies to build a healthier and more productive workforce.

Can you discuss the connection between mental and physical health? And why is this an area that the AHA is committed to researching?

People spend a lot of time talking with their doctors about physical health but not as much about mental health, even though they’re linked. Issues that can be described as mental-health issues, like anxiety and depression, can be risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Our Roundtable has taken this on as an issue and is very dedicated to helping to change the dialogue and the norms in corporate America. This is a group of leaders from large organizations who are committed to working with the American Heart Association to transform health in our workplace and in our communities, and it is very focused on the broader picture of health and wellbeing. We understand that mental- and physical-health issues go together, so our goal is to create dialogue to allow change in the ways our company and our society think about mental health.

The Workforce in Crisis report mentions that workplace interventions have traditionally targeted symptoms rather than the risk factors for poor mental health. What is the first step organizations should be making to start that mindset shift?

Since mental health and physical health are so linked, companies need to start creating a cultural norm so that employees feel comfortable coming forward if they’re facing issues affecting their mental health. Supervisors and leaders of the organization should be equipped to recommend resources to get employees the help they need. One of the things the report talks about is how important leadership from the top is for change. Leaders of the organization can play a significant role in increasing communication around this issue to support employee mental health.

Today’s employees have heightened expectations for the employee experience. How can organizations build a positive culture around mental health as part of their overall approach to employee experience?

In our organization, where we have several-thousand employees, we’re very focused on the fact that people spend a good majority of their time at work. The environment and culture at work is so important for people to be able to fully bring their best selves every day to work, for an experience that is meaningful and valuable. Having companies visibly represent their commitment to the whole employee can help create a culture where people can bring their best selves to work and feel like they’re getting the support and resources they need. For example, when I first announced to American Health Association staff in December that [mental health] was going to be a major focus of our CEO Roundtable, I had so many of our employees come up to me personally or via email to tell me their stories. So many said how grateful they were to know that we care so much about this issue. Opening the door for people to be able to talk about what’s on their minds is a way to help make sure employees know and understand the resources that are available. Many companies have employee-assistance programs that are underutilized, and these could be promoted more. We need to work to take away the stigma in the workplace so people can be themselves and get the support they need.

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How can employers maintain their business objectives while still prioritizing the mental health of their workers in this changing environment, especially in our fast-paced, “always-on” environment? And what role does technology play in this area?

That’s the big debate: Is technology an aid or a problem? A lot goes back to the tone at the top. We’re working to encourage employers to address job strain and burnout, make sure they’re offering accommodations and are encouraging people to use vacation time. They should make sure they’re using tech to enable flexible work arrangements; there are ways that technology can promote mental and physical health. Also, many companies—through their insurance and employee-health programs—offer tech-based resources, such as meditation apps and tools that encourage employees to get more exercise and to focus on both physical and mental health. These are great resources that should be promoted, and leaders can live this mission themselves by using them.

Of the seven actionable strategies prompted by the Workforce in Crisis report, is there one or two that you think HR leaders can be most effective in making a reality?

HR leaders can really promote a positive view of the whole person, and leaders can further help set an example to reduce stigma in the workplace. HR should be thinking about training that employees and leaders need to recognize signs of mental-health issues, such as depression or anxiety, and to [know how to] offer resources. Work plans [around wellness] need to incorporate both mental and physical health, and can be used to create evidence-based policies that HR leaders can bring to life in the workplace. But the most important thing HR can do is to make sure that all employees understand the resources that are embedded in the company’s offerings, such as through the health-insurance plan or the employee-assistance program. For so may people who don’t normally think about accessing those benefits, they just don’t know where to start. And think about how those features are highlighted; there are ways HR leaders can make sure they’re promoted, and in a way that reduces stigma and encourages participation. Make sure people see the connection between mental and physical health, so that [a mental-health issue] is not seen as something that’s bad.

What’s next for the CEO Roundtable?

This report is just the beginning—not the end—of our interest in mental health. As a science-based organization, we gather evidence and make sure it’s documented and published. We now intend to work to implement these recommendations in our own companies and help other companies in our networks with resources and support to also implement the recommendations. This is one of the many topics the Roundtable will [explore] that focuses on creating workplaces for people’s optimal health and wellbeing. This is just one step in the longer journey.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]