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.


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.