One of the reasons our company consistently wins "Best Places to Work" awards both regionally in San Diego and nationally is because we believe in a working environment that is inclusive of everyone, and that includes people who have been open about dealing with mental health issues.
We still have a long way to go, but we are trying to be a company where people feel comfortable talking about mental health because it's the right thing to do and also because the next generation of workers are going to be demanding that their places of employment recognize the importance of mental health.
Mental health has been labeled the "next frontier of diversity" in the Harvard Business Review by the authors of a new study done by representatives of Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics about the prevalence of mental health issues and stigma in the workplace.
The researchers polled over 1,500 employees across the United States from a diverse range of backgrounds and demographics. This study was of great interest to me because we've recently done our own in-house research and analysis about the subject of health (including mental health) in preparation of our new corporate wellness program.
In the published study, 86 percent of respondents believe workplace culture should support mental health and that's especially important to Millennials and Gen Zers who are more likely to leave a job due to mental health reasons. Fifty percent of Millennials and 75 percent of Gen Zers have left roles because of mental health reasons compared to 20 percent of overall respondents.
The researchers point out that providing employees with the support they need helps with employee engagement, recruitment and retention. Doing nothing, however, reinforces outdated stigmas about mental health issues, which is not helpful considering that, according to another study quoted by the researchers, up to 80 percent of people will have to deal with a mental health issue at some point in their lives.
So, how can businesses change their culture around the subject of mental health and become a more positive place for people to feel comfortable discussing mental health?
Here, I combine the findings of the published study with our own humble, in-house research with our employees.
1. Change starts at the top.
Not only for mental health, but for any cultural change you want to enact, it has to come from the top down. This is something we know well, as we've worked hard to establish a positive and welcoming working environment at our business.
Leaders can help to destigmatize discussions of mental health by leading the discussion themselves. I still rely on the fallback answer of "fine" when I'm asked how I'm doing regardless of how I'm actually doing, but I'm trying to open up a bit more. Leaders need to be open about discussing their own mental health in the workplace, especially since, according to the researchers, CEOs and managers are just as likely to have issues with their mental health as employees.
Business leaders can also help by advocating for things like employees practicing mental health exercises like meditation and mindfulness and by eschewing so-called "hustle culture" where people believe they have to be working an inordinate amount of time every week to really be considered productive.
2. Training is required.
Some training will be required to help managers deal with and normalize addressing mental health at work. That's not to say managers should become therapists, but some education about what to look for and how to talk with employees about potential mental health issues would be a good idea.
I can't say that we are leading by example in this category, but we do encourage our managers to be understanding of any outside influences on a team member's performance. If a company invests in first-aid training, why not some training in how to talk with someone who might be dealing with something outside of work?
3. Support is needed.
At the minimum, you should have mental health benefits in your corporate benefits package and make sure employees know about them by talking about them during a new employee's orientation and to all employees throughout the year. You will need to ensure employees can use their benefits with privacy and discretion.
Some companies go further and have started employee resource groups for mental health, where employees can share experiences and materials with each other.
To help companies beef up their mental health plans, our business is rolling out a type of corporate wellness program that uses online surveys and saliva-based neurotransmitter tests to help employees identify potential mental health risks, something we also plan on doing within our own company.