Plenty of startups acknowledge the physical toll of an always-on corporate culture by offering health insurance, wellness programs, and trendy perks like gym memberships and yoga classes. But now, more companies are taking the mental and emotional strain of work seriously, too. Based on a review of Inc.'s 2019 Best Workplaces, today's top employers are embracing a broad definition of "wellness" and viewing stress as a health concern rather than just a cost of doing business.

They're organizing group sessions with social workers, subsidizing employees' therapy bills, and granting workers no-strings-attached stipends to use on massages, life coaches, vacations, and even essential oils. Some are even offering paid sabbaticals to long-serving employees.

This new focus on mental health is smart, suggests Rod Hart, a health and benefits analyst at Aon, a global human resources consulting firm. "Workplaces often focus on the physical aspects--things like heart disease and diabetes," says Hart. Now, "they're also recognizing that emotional health plays a significant role in chronic health conditions as well." And mental illness and burnout have major implications for businesses. The World Health Organization, for instance, estimates that depression and anxiety disorders account for around $1 trillion in global productivity losses per year. 

Here's how to amp up your company's health initiatives and keep employees both physically and mentally well.

1. Give your team flexibility.

If you want to invest in mental health in your workplace but aren't sure where to start, one option is to let employees choose. Knotch, a marketing analytics company in New York City, gives employees a $50 monthly stipend to put toward whatever wellness-related expenses they wish. Nearly all the company's employees take advantage of the reimbursement, and they like being able to use it for a different purpose each month, says HR manager Garrison Gibbons. He uses the money for therapy appointments, while others spend it on massages, meditation apps, and, yes, gym memberships.

2. Get employee buy-in.

While several companies on Inc.'s 2019 Best Workplaces list offer monthly or annual stipends, employees don't always take advantage of benefits--even short-term services for people struggling with addiction and other personal problems. That's because "only about half of the population [of workers] has any awareness that some of these resources even exist," Hart says. He suggests that getting employee buy-in might be easier for smaller companies with tight-knit cultures. What else works? Having a CEO who is open about her or his own struggles with mental health. Employees will see that mental illness isn't shameful and can be managed, and may be more likely to seek help before they're in crisis.

3. Make it easier to get help.

Opening a workplace dialogue and teaching coping strategies can go a long way in aiding employees' mental health, but sometimes people need professional treatment. While most health insurance plans cover at least some mental health care, therapy can be expensive--even with insurance--and it can be hard to find providers who both accept your insurance and are taking on new patients. To close this gap, some companies are turning to online services like Kip, a San Francisco-based startup that matches users with therapists for in-person sessions. Blend, a San Francisco-based digital-lending software company, pays for its employees' first appointment with a Kip therapist, and covers 75 percent of the next four sessions. (Kip operates only in San Francisco).

4. Bring in the professionals.

Another option is to bring professionals in-house. At Aurora, Illinois-based accounting firm Klein Hall, all employees have access to a psychologist on the company's dime. The company has also started bringing in a certified life coach to work with employees at least once a year; she holds separate sessions for managers and for rank-and-file staff. "We've noticed that when people have these sources, they perform better," says Karen Allen, an administrator at Klein Hall. "They seem happier, and they've got a better outlook on everything." 

5. Track your progress.

While these programs sound good in theory, it can be difficult to measure their success with any degree of certainty unless you specifically track your results. Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has written extensively about workplace burnout. "What is the evidence that [such programs] are actually effective in preventing burnout?" she asked in an email. "If the companies are not tracking that, then it would be impossible to say whether this trend is actually making a positive difference."

Published on: May 16, 2019