Although the repercussions of the pandemic may not fully play out for years, one thing is clear: You cannot ignore the mental health of your employees.

It's no longer possible -- if it ever was -- to ignore the rest of our lives while being productive at work. The authors of a new paper by Holmes Murphy, MindWise Innovations, and CSDZ aim to introduce the basics of behavioral health to business leaders and offer concrete strategies for promoting a caring workplace culture.

"If you want to stay competitive, to attract and retain talent, then you need to be talking about mental health and substance use," says Lisa Desai, one of the authors of the report -- which is called "Building A Caring Culture: Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace" -- and chief behavioral health officer at MindWise.

Leaders that fail to prioritize employee well-being can expect to see rising rates of absenteeism and presenteeism, the latter of which is defined by the Harvard Business Review as "being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning."

If you think your workforce is free of behavioral health struggles, think again. Depression alone costs the U.S. economy $210 billion annually, with employers bearing half that cost, per the American Psychiatric Association. Even before the pandemic, mental health and substance abuse problems were widespread in the workforce. The American Heart Association's CEO Roundtable Report found that three out of four U.S. employees have struggled with an issue impacting their mental health.

Overcoming the Barriers

Recognizing the need to address behavioral health at work is key, but there are barriers to implementing an effective strategy. Among them:

  • Reluctance among your employees to speak openly about mental health can hamper your efforts. You'll need to assuage fears that workers will face career setbacks if they share information about a personal mental health problem.
  • HR professionals face the challenge of addressing employee mental health problems while protecting personal information. We now know that privacy and confidentiality can be maintained while promoting a culture that values mental health.
  • The lack of regulations requiring businesses to address mental health prevents some leaders from implementing programs, but regardless of government intervention, the costs of ignoring mental health will continue to rise.

Considering the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace and to counter these common barriers, there are many strategies leaders can implement to foster a caring culture, including: 

1. Post information on mental health resources

For those of us returning to the office, displaying posters with positive mental health messaging in your offices and/or worksites is an easy way to support your employees' well-being.

Resources abound, including the Crisis Text Line and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; sector-specific organizations, such as the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention; and local health departments or nonprofits.

The leaders of a medical supply distribution company, concerned about the impact of rapid sales growth on their workers, began sharing Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and county health department information in small group meetings and on posters throughout the workplace.

2. Evaluate your business's health benefits

Ensure that the insurance plans you offer include mental health and substance use services. Would additional services to reduce the impact of chronic conditions like depression be useful?

Equally important is guaranteeing that employees will face no repercussions for utilizing behavioral-health-related benefits. "Just highlighting existing behavioral health benefits demonstrates that you value mental health and well-being and helps erode hesitancy for utilizing those services," says Cal Beyer, another of the paper's authors and vice-president of workforce risk and worker well-being for CSDZ.

3. Include mental health info in your new hire orientation

Tell your employees about the resources you're providing from day one. Highlight any well-being or mental health benefits available to your employees. One tech company adopted a "buddy system" for all new hires to emphasize the importance of self-care and preventing burnout.

4. Incorporate mental health into existing safety meetings

Bringing mental health topics into safety meetings and trainings gives business owners the opportunity to model the behaviors and conversations that you want your employees to feel safe having. This, in turn, encourages your managers to talk about their own stress levels, struggles, or how they've asked for help.

5. Share resources with your employees' families

Send awareness information on mental health and substance abuse directly to your employees' families. Expanding your communication in this way proves your company's commitment to supporting your workers 24/7/365. "Imagine that worry about a family member with a mental health issue is distracting an employee. Knowing that you're there for them goes a long way toward restoring focus and productivity," notes Desai.

Adopting these strategies will help to build a psychologically safe foundation for open communication about behavioral health. Psychological safety profoundly impacts workers, leading to greater openness to feedback, increased productivity, creative problem-solving, and stronger team bonds. These benefits directly counter the negative effects of mental health and substance abuse on absenteeism, presenteeism, and -- ultimately -- your bottom line.