It’s Time to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace

Guest: Rachel Bitte Culture, Current Affairs, HR, Leadership, Policies, Rachel Bitte, Vacation, wellness, Work Life Balance

Thanks to increased awareness driven by celebrities, athletes, politicians and more, mental illness has become less stigmatizing than it previously was. But as society gains a greater understanding of the issues, the conversation around mental health (and how we should handle it) has failed to permeate the workplace at the same rate.

As companies tout improved work-life balance, gym memberships, standing desks, and healthy food options, employees are continuing to work harder and longer than ever. The traditional nine-to-five workday no longer exists, as the average workweek now clocks in at 47 hours for Americans. This certainly plays a factor in the record levels of burnout now reported, making the dialogue around mental health all the more important.

Most organizations want to handle the mental health of their employees kindly and effectively. While taking it seriously, being supportive, and having real policies in place are all a great start, those alone simply can’t undo the cultural forces that have left progress on mental health in the workplace lagging.

There’s a disconnect today between a company’s policies and its workforce. In order to bridge the divide and provide the best assistance and guidance to employees, HR needs to adjust our approach to mental health too. Here are a couple of thoughts on how we can start changing the status quo around mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Be proactive, not reactive.

Sometimes the best defense is a great offense, and that’s exactly how you should approach mental wellbeing at your company. Rather than focusing on employee assistance programs as reactive measures when a crisis occurs, take the time to educate folks on how those programs can be used proactively to manage mental wellbeing.

Employee workshops can help keep the dialogue going, and help workers understand all of the benefits available to them. It’s important to make sure they know that resources like mental health programs or counseling are readily available and accessible when they need them.

Calling some training sessions for your people managers can also help them prioritize the importance of mental health (and better equip them to deal with issues). In order to effectively lead, supervisors need to be able to read the warning signs and understand how to handle them accordingly — whether that’s going to HR directly or another course of action.

Establish authentic “work-life” boundaries.

While companies encourage work-life balance perks on their websites, in the office the “always on” culture of “homework” and after-hours emails only grows worse. Today, more than half of young workers claim they feel pressure from employers to work on weekends and after hours. The sentiment we hear is that “if you’re not grinding, someone else is  — and the next promotion will go to them.”

This expectation to always be available online has led to an environment where employees constantly overshare on their whereabouts. In fact, they’re so worried about it that they’re afraid to take vacation time, sick time, or even a break when it comes to their own mental wellbeing.

This sharing of every minute detail of workers’ days also needs to end. We should stop asking such detailed questions about folks’ personal schedules, and they should stop sharing them. An employee should be able to say they have an appointment in the afternoon, or need to step out for a minute, or take the day off — and managers and company leaders need to respect and trust that.

To be frank, when it comes to employees’ mental wellness I don’t think corporate America is as kind as it should be yet. That’s why as HR professionals, we need to do more than simply have mental health services in place. We need to break the stigma and create awareness around this issue in the workplace. To help make that happen, we must encourage an open dialogue between both our company and our employees, as well as do our part to provide the best resources possible for workers.