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Support Your Staff During Mental Health Awareness Month and Beyond

Since 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the U.S. as a time to raise awareness of those living with mental or behavioral health issues, and to help reduce the stigma that so many face. Data from the CDC shows that one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Household Pulse Survey revealed that 40% of U.S. adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.

After the year we’ve had, it’s more important than ever to destigmatize mental health conversations and offer support to employees who may be struggling. Here are some ways you can do this.

Bake it into your culture

The first step in removing the stigma around mental health is by acknowledging its prevalence and providing resources for employees to better understand how to seek help. 
Here’s an inexhaustive list of some ways you can do that:

  • Create an up-to-date list of company and community mental health resources like an Employee Assistance Program
  • Educate your staff of both the impact and the complexity of mental and behavioral health issues.
  • Allow for flexibility of schedules and know that not every employee’s needs are the same. 
  • Offer mental health days and encourage staff members of all professional levels to take advantage of them.
  • Respect your employee’s boundaries when they ask for time off for their mental health.
  • Create a culture of inclusion and acceptance where your employees feel safe to talk about their personal and professional concerns.

Lastly, don’t squander your efforts by encouraging mental health discussions in May only. While Mental Health Awareness Month provides a great opportunity to proactively raise the topic to your employees and show your support, it should be used as a springboard and your efforts should continue all year long.

Pay attention

Throughout the past year, challenges with mental health have been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially for those belonging to marginalized groups. We’ve seen disproportionate suffering in disadvantaged communities, including higher unemployment, hospitalization and death rates, as a result of COVID-19.

Additionally, access to mental health resources in these communities has historically been inequitable, leading to those in lower income and rural areas receiving incomprehensive treatment when they do seek help, or forgo treatment entirely. And, Americans experiencing poverty are up to three times more likely to be afflicted with depression and anxiety than wealthy individuals.

Income level, race, gender identity, along with plenty of other variables, like parenting responsibilities, job type, and economic opportunity, contribute to different mental health experiences. So it’s critical to meet your employees where they are and be aware of how the happenings of the world — along with their specific circumstances — might be affecting them. 

Acknowledge your role

Workplace stress can have a huge toll on employee mental health, and as a result, a dramatic affect on your bottom line. It’s worth noting that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, so there’s a business case for ensuring your employees are healthy, too. Understanding the role your organization plays in mental health — and actively monitoring your employees for signs of suffering — should be a priority of your company.

A national survey by McKinsey revealed that there’s a disconnect between employer and employee perspective on the efficacy of workplace mental health support. For example, 65% of employers reported that employee mental health is supported well or very well, while only 51% of employee respondents agreed. Therefore, it’s important to involve your employees in the development of your mental health support efforts and continuously gather feedback to ensure its value.

Train your managers to be invested in their employees’ well being and to look for signs of increased stress and burnout. Use anonymous employee wellness surveys to gauge overall employee sentiment on important issues like work-life balance, benefit offerings, levels of stress, and productivity. Address concerns on a company-wide level, but also discuss with each individual contributor about the collective findings and any changes that will be implemented. 

Check in

Holding check-ins with your staff is an essential part of creating a positive employee experience. Whether you’re meeting weekly or bi-weekly, these recurring scheduled meetings create an environment of trust between manager and employee, as well as provide an opportunity for employees to bring up issues, concerns, or questions.

You can also use this as a time to gauge employee health, as well. Ask intentional questions that go beyond casual small talk. Ask about how they’re feeling about workload and current events, listen intently, and offer your support. Keep in mind that you may not always have the perfect thing to say if a staff member voices that they’re struggling, and that’s okay. But creating this connection and environment of trust — especially in remote settings — is crucial to your employees’ wellbeing.

Lead by example

Make sure that you’re setting a good example for your team by taking care of your mental health, too. It’s one thing to encourage an employee to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but you should ensure that you’re setting the precedent as well.

A few examples include taking advantage of company mental health days and vacation time without checking your email, stepping away from your desk from time to time for a walk or water cooler break, and avoiding consistent late nights in the office or online. Your team members notice your actions and will likely assume what you do is the standard of what’s expected of them, so creating some healthy boundaries between work and personal life will help them do the same. 

The fact that you’re reading this article proves that you care about your employees’ mental health, so it’s important that you make that evident to them, too. Even if individuals don’t feel comfortable speaking up, they will value knowing that their company believes mental health maintenance is essential. Starting this dialogue in the workplace will provide a platform for your employees to continue the conversation with one another and make sure they feel valued as individuals, beyond their day-to-day responsibilities.

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