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Addressing Mental Health in the Workforce

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Johanna G. Zelman

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. After fifteen months of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has placed unprecedented stress on Americans dealing with isolation and fear, while juggling closed schools and businesses, homeschooling children, working from home, and economic uncertainty, including ensuring basic necessities – Americans are struggling to recover. One study published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a finding that almost 41 percent of adults reported a mental health issue or increased substance use. Other studies published more recently in 2021 reflect similar results. For employers, who rely on a healthy workforce to be successful, this has direct repercussions on productivity, work quality and, in some cases, legal liability.

Despite this, mental health remains highly stigmatized, and employees are often uncomfortable speaking about their troubles at work. But there are things employers can do to encourage their employees to ask for help.

  • Talk to Your Employees. Have your managers and supervisors check in on your employees and ask them how they are doing or if they need anything. Make sure they communicate to employees that as their employer, you are there for them. Employees feel more comfortable speaking to their employers when they know that the subject of mental health is not taboo.
  • Let Employees Know that is Okay Not to be Okay. Many employees believe that they must always put on their best face while at work. This leads to the illusion that they are always happy and that their lives are perfect, discouraging others from coming forward with concerns. Tell employees that they don’t have to always be okay, and encourage them to talk about their concerns. It is okay to not be okay.
  • Make EAP Available and Accessible. Having an Employee Assistance Plan available and easily accessible is a great way to bring mental health care to your employees. Send an email to your employees identifying your EAP provider and providing instructions on how to access it. Put these instructions on your company intranet. Consider giving your employees a few free sessions per year as part of their benefits. Make sure employees understand that the use of EAP services generally will be anonymous unless they are told otherwise.
  • Publish a List of Resources. Every community has mental health and substance abuse resources available. Put together a list of these resources and provide it to your employees, either through email or by making it available on your company intranet, or both.
  • Make Sure Mental Health Care is Covered by Your Health Plan. Many health insurers still do not cover treatment for mental health care. Make sure that the health insurance plan you choose for your employees covers mental health treatment.
  • Encourage Employees to Take Time for Themselves. Rest and relaxation increase productivity. During COVID, many employees gave up their vacations because travel was not possible. Now that it is, encourage your employees to take vacation time, even if it means taking a staycation.
  • Create Opportunities for Employees to Socialize. Bring in donuts on Fridays, and encourage employees to socialize (with or without masks) in the breakroom for a few minutes. Hold a happy hour once a month. Sponsor a cookie competition during the holidays. Social events tend to make for a happier workforce, increasing employee productivity and decreasing the sense of isolation and other factors that lead to mental health issues.
  • Train Your Employees. Providing training to employees about mental health and ways to manage it will let your employees know you are open to hearing their concerns.
  • Ensure All Employees Understand How to Request an Accommodation. Federal law, most state laws, and some local laws require that an employer provide reasonable accommodations to its disabled employees. A mental health condition may qualify as a disability under these laws. A “reasonable accommodation” is any adjustment that can be made to working conditions that allows an employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job, although essential functions need not be eliminated, and the employee’s requested accommodation need not be granted so long as the accommodation provided is reasonable. Tell your employees how to make such a request, and make sure they understand that there will be no retaliation if they do need an accommodation. In some instances, a leave of absence may even be necessary. Again, make sure your employees know it is okay.

Mental illness is often labeled a “silent” disability because, in most cases, it is not apparent. It is, however, no less serious than any physical disability, and, left untreated, can be more harmful. One of the leading causes of employer losses is due to mental health conditions. Employers, therefore, benefit by ensuring that they have a workforce that is healthy, both physically and mentally. Encouraging employees to come forward and seek help for mental health concerns or illness will create loyalty and an overall happier and more satisfying work environment.

This blog originally appeared at FordHarrison on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About this Author: Johanna Zelman has represented a wide variety of employers from various industries, but Johanna has a specific strength in matters arising in the municipal employment setting and in public schools and universities.


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Mental Health at the Workplace – What You Need to

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The stigma that has once surrounded mental health issues is slowly beginning to lift. Fortunately, celebrities and online influencers continue to step out and speak up about their experiences with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health challenges.

But what of the people who are working at jobs that are not exposed to the media? What do they need to know about mental health at their workplace?

Let’s look at some important facts and statistics.

Mental Health Issues Significantly Affect Businesses

Mental health challenges and issues, as well as heightened stress, can lead to poor job performance and a drop in productivity, less engagement at work, and communication issues between employees and employers. They will inevitably impact a business’s bottom line.

As little as one night of poor sleep can significantly impact performance – and considering how mental health challenges affect sleep patterns, the downward spiral is easy to spot.

Employees Have Mental Health Rights

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employee cannot be fired or forced to stop working based on a mental health issue, and the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for any mental health condition.

Some employers provide employee assistance programs, too. These are completely confidential and provide assistance to an employee without disclosing any information to the company.

Employees are also allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a mental health crisis.

Mental Health Issues Are More Common Than You Think

Unless it’s happening to us, we are mostly unaware of how widely spread mental health issues are. Most people still don’t talk about their own challenges with their mental health.

But the fact of the matter is that one in five Americans will experience a mental health illness every year. This means that there is most likely at least one person in every office suffering from some kind of mental health challenge, be it mild or severe.

Mental Health Issues Are Most Often Treatable

Even when they seem incredibly frightening and isolating to the person affected by them, mental health issues are often treatable. In most cases, they can be solved with regular treatment – whether that be therapy, medication, or simply a specific daily practice someone exercises.

The sooner the person suffering from a mental illness seeks treatment, the greater their chances of solving the issue successfully.

What Can You Do to Promote Mental Health in the Workplace

The best way to battle mental health issues in the workplace is to advocate, speak up, and establish procedures for times of crisis. Here are some of the ways you can get involved and practices you can advocate for in your office:

  • De-stigmatization – One of the most challenging issues we face in the realm of mental health and mental health advocacy is ignorance and stigmatization. Educating coworkers, managers, and employees about mental health (their own as well as other people’s) is the first step to take.
  • A clear line of communication without repercussions – It’s vital to open a line of communication between employees and managers on the subject of mental health. An employee needs to be able to step forward and confide to their manager about their challenges and triggers. In exchange, solutions and processes need to be put in place to help them overcome these issues.
  • Personal mental health practices – We can all do a lot to take care of our own mental health. Getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, getting enough exercise, and spending time outdoors will significantly help our mental state. Furthermore, it’s crucial for our mental health that we find the time for friends, family, and hobbies. Even when an employer is unable to provide mental health support, the things we do for ourselves can help significantly.
  • Watching out for each other – When someone is suffering from a mental health disorder, they may not be able to see it clearly. Speaking up when you notice someone’s odd behavior or irritability and offering support can be the spark they need to help them start getting better.

Final Thoughts

Mental health in the workplace will take more spotlight as the workplace itself evolves and shifts. For the time being, it’s up to the employees to advocate for this cause. They have to fight for the processes and procedures that can protect them. Hopefully, these facts can help open up that conversation.

About the author: Sarah Kaminski is a freelance writer and social media marketer. She works with a number of small businesses to build their brands through more engaging marketing and content.


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Why the Best Protectors for Workers Are Other Workers

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As concertgoers fled the mass shooting at the country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay in Clark County, Nev., at the end of the Las Vegas strip, dozens of off-duty fire fighters attending the concert sprang into action. Twelve were among the wounded by gunfire.

At the same time, more than 150 fire fighters and paramedics from Clark County Local 1908 and surrounding locals rushed to the scene to save lives, treat the wounded and help the survivors.

“Our members–including those attending the concert off duty–reacted as they always do,” said IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “They put their training to work immediately, without hesitation and without regard for their own safety, making quick and difficult decisions on how best to save lives.”

As the news of the unfolding tragedy flashed across the nation, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) – the union representing more than 310,000 professional fire fighters and paramedics–also took action, reaching out to Clark County Local 1908 and other affiliates in the area to provide assistance.

On Monday morning after the shooting, Patrick Morrison–a retired Virginia fire fighter who heads the health and safety division at the IAFF, was on the phone with affiliates across the country to organize and mobilize experienced teams of peer support counselors and trauma specialists to help members involved in the response to the mass shooting. Within hours, he too was on a plane to Las Vegas.

“It’s easy to see a broken arm and treat it. It’s more difficult to see trauma to our brains or hearts,” Morrison said. “Everyday, work for fire fighters and paramedics can be traumatic. Mass-casualty events can be much worse. We want to make sure our members understand the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress injuries, so we can treat them.”

Many of the peer support counselors who arrived in Las Vegas have been through similar events. Some pulled bodies from the attack at the 2016 Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and 59 wounded. Others got a crash course in trauma from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

All of them brought their personal stories to Las Vegas to help their union brothers and sisters.

At the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col., Ray Rahne was a fire fighter who had responded like everyone else in his department. Afterwards, the Vietnam veteran, who is also a husband and father, would find himself crying at times. And he was skittish and jumpy.

“I would go from happy to depressed at the snap of the fingers. People started asking, ‘What’s going on?’ This went on for over a year. Finally, I thought, I don’t know. I’ve got to go see somebody,” Rahne said.

Now retired from Littleton Fire and Rescue and a IAFF district vice president, Rahne got help and then joined his union’s growing movement to treat mental and emotional injuries to fire fighters, paramedics, and dispatchers.

Two years ago, the IAFF hired its first full-time and permanent behavior health specialist. This year, the union plans to hire a second. And, last March, the union opened the Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery in Upper Marlboro, Md., exclusively for IAFF members.

“Health and safety is a big priority for us. We want to make sure all of our members are as safe as possible,” Morrison said.


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