Understanding how a business can best support its employees’ mental health has evolved drastically in the past decades. Mental health is a growing workplace concern, with the related indirect impact to businesses estimated at $79 billion lost to poor productivity and absent employees.
Fortunately, many leaders at every rung of the corporate ladder are learning how to create safe, open environments and help employees perform at their best. Many misconceptions about mental health still exist, but as those stigmas begin to fall away, companies are taking advantage of the benefits of supporting holistic employee health.
The Bottom-Line Benefits of Emphasizing Mental Health
When employees are healthy and engaged, they are more likely to be satisfied and productive at work. By making employee mental health a priority, managers create a supportive environment where people are able to bring their best selves to work.
A strong culture and mental health focus also helps decrease employee turnover. This increase in retention saves money in onboarding costs and also adds the benefits of maintaining customer relationships and preserving institutional knowledge so corporate and industry experience is not lost because employees are unhappy with their current jobs.
These are essential areas of concern for leadership teams looking to build a strong company culture, improve retention and increase revenue. Here are five ways managers can support mental health and create a safe and transparent culture:
1. Talk About Mental Health
Tearing down stigmas is arguably the most important thing any manager can do to promote mental health. Leaders often encourage physical health with their teams, broadly letting people know it's okay to take care of illnesses and needs as they arise, and they should not be afraid to do the same with mental health.
Regular one-on-one meetings with employee-driven agendas are invaluable tools to that end. Rather than simply going through a checklist of projects, managers should encourage discussion of work-life balance and higher-level concerns. This will also let managers share personal experiences and strategies for managing stress and caring for mental health.
2. Offer Employee Benefits That Cover Mental Health Services
With more than 40 million Americans — one in six — living with a mental illness, virtually every company is impacted by some sort of mental health concern. As more companies become attuned to the needs and benefits of employee mental health, more benefits plans are including mental health services as an option for their employees. Managers should promote and discuss these employee assistance programs with their team members.
Where companies have opportunity and resources, they should consider an onsite clinic with mental health counselors. At CHG, our people can visit the onsite clinic any time they need, without using PTO or sick time, and without needing permission from their manager.
3. Create Opportunities for Employees to Destress
There is a persistent belief that time away from their desk or a work task is time wasted. Studies have found the opposite to be true: relaxing, re-centering and returning to tasks improves productivity.
Leaders should encourage employees to take their earned vacation or paid time off (PTO) and create an environment where there is no guilt associated with requests for time off. In addition, managers could also consider organizing recreational team events and group service opportunities for employees to connect outside of the office environment. Volunteer time off (VTO) is another increasingly popular option that lets employees get away from work and give back to their communities in areas where they are interested and passionate.
4. Create a Safe and Welcoming Work Environment
Expectations of results are part of any job, but few things will relieve day-to-day stress in employees more than knowing it is okay for them to fail. Managers who welcome the opportunity to help employees learn from failures will encourage people to be open about areas where they feel uncertain, rather than pretending they can do everything.
Managers focused on mental health will put team members in positions that utilize each employee's unique strengths. This doesn’t mean people can't learn and accomplish the main tasks of a job, but it does mean that leaders should help employees be successful within their strengths. For example, giving an extrovert a team development presentation may energize and engage the employee, while providing the same assignment to an introvert could increase their stress dramatically.
Companies should also solicit feedback from their employees at every opportunity, through programs like leadership reviews, suggestion boxes, regular one-on-one meetings, focus groups and informal discussions. Equally important to creating an open environment is discussing that feedback with teams and making changes based on the input.
5. Be an Example of Good Mental Health
Leaders often fall into the trap of encouraging one behavior and modeling something different. This is rarely more obvious than with stress relief and mental health. If a manager doesn't take advantage of well-being benefits and recreational opportunities, then their teams will not feel empowered to do so, either.
Managers need to set a good example of caring for their own mental health by taking mental health breaks during the day and unplugging after hours. When out of the office — including on vacation — they should stay away from email. Dashing off a handful of emails in the evenings may be convenient timing for the manager, but it sets an expectation for their teams. Before long, regardless of what may be preached in team meetings, everyone works at all hours.
Encouraging mental health and stress relief is not the same thing as discouraging hard work. By changing the paradigm and enabling people at all levels of an organization to disconnect when away from work, companies can engender high levels of engagement and job satisfaction.
Open and supportive environments within companies have a drastic positive benefit on employee mental health. When leaders communicate with openness it signals their team members to do likewise. Sharing ideas and opinions among team members will do as much to build strong company culture as all of the potluck lunches and casual Fridays combined.
Kevin Ricklefs is Sr. Vice President of Talent Management at CHG Healthcare.