Given the frequently serious consequences of mental health problems for individuals and their loved ones, there is a strong moral case for businesses to prioritize mental health in the workplace. Moreover, a growing body of studies and polling data suggests there’s an equally strong economic case for taking mental health seriously.
A Gallup poll from 2013 found that absenteeism due to depression alone costs U.S. employers approximately $23 billion per year in lost productivity. Add to this missed work days because of stress-related illnesses, addiction, and other common mental health disorders that afflict millions of people in our society, and the expenses can mount quickly.
Aside from reducing productivity losses and employee turnover, an effective approach to mental health in the workplace can raise workforce morale, and improve relations among employees and managers.
A work environment conducive to good mental health
A manager’s first priority should be to foster a salubrious work environment, and encourage sound habits and practices in general.
• Keep stock of the essentials, like workplace safety, clean air, good hygiene and organization, proper equipment and training for all employees. Ensure that everyone knows and understands h/er own role and assigned tasks.
• Promote mental health literacy in the workplace. Consider supplementing your organization’s current training regimen with expert seminars that address warning signs of mental health problems, stigma and unwarranted feelings of shame or embarrassment around mental illness, popular misconceptions about the mentally ill, and common but inaccurate descriptions of mental illness.
• Involve staff members in decision-making. Ideally, they should feel that their point of view and individual agency are respected, as opposed to feeling like cogs in a machine who robotically follow orders.
• Promote work-life balance by enabling staff to share the workload, and providing adequate vacation, sick leave, and family-related leave.
• Insist on respectful behaviour and inclusiveness at every level of your organization.
• Provide opportunities for skills acquisition and advancement.
• Recognize and express gratitude for good work at all levels, and acknowledge individual employees’ contributions to the overall success of the enterprise.
• Provide employee feedback mechanisms, and have an appropriate conflict resolution strategy.
• Encourage openness, honesty, and respectful discourse around mental illness, emphasizing the notion that mental health challenges are nothing to be ashamed of. (This is especially important, since concealed mental health problems can undermine an employee’s performance and overall health.)
• Remember that people with mental health challenges may be taking psychoactive medication as part of a treatment program, and/or attending regular therapy sessions. These obligations may preclude them from putting in long hours at work, or limit their flexibility in terms of shift-scheduling.
Aspects of the physical environment can also help to promote good mental health. For example, studies indicate that the presence of green plants in an office environment can help reduce negative emotions like stress, anger, and fatigue, while promoting focus, productivity, and job satisfaction. Nowadays, a growing number of office environments offer recreation spaces to help employees regain their focus, and some even have dedicated nap rooms!
Accommodating mental illness
Just as with physical disabilities and chronic conditions, reasonable accommodations can often be made for employees with mental health challenges, helping them perform to their full potential at work. The first and most crucial step is to overcome the stigma that our society has historically attached to mental illness, so that staff members who face mental health difficulties can freely articulate their needs.