5 Ways Companies Are Changing the Conversation About Mental Health in the Workplace

November 26, 2018

In the UK, mental health problems are the second biggest cause of absences from work. Combined with employee turnover resulting from mental illness, this costs companies £2.4 billion each year in lost productivity.

And the UK is far from alone in facing these issues. In the U.S., about one in five adults lives with a mental illness, which can significantly impact their ability to function at work and in their daily lives. Unfortunately, social stigma around these issues can make it extremely challenging for people to seek help when they need it the most—especially in the workplace, where many employees still face disciplinary actions for disclosing their mental illness.

But some companies are trying to change the conversation around mental health. At a time when workplace wellness programs are becoming increasingly popular, offering mental health initiatives can help promote a healthier, happier culture where employees feel safe asking for help. In turn, this can boost productivity, reduce absenteeism, and potentially save lives.

Here are just a few ways that companies are making mental health a priority—and offering a lifeline to their employees.

1. Leaders at EY talk openly about their own struggles with mental health to help eliminate the stigma

EY has had an employee assistance program (EY Assist) for some time, aiming to connect employees in need with counselors and other resources. But in 2016, the business consultancy noticed an increase in reports about anxiety. Since mental health is still considered a taboo subject by many, this raised the worrying question of how many employees were struggling in silence.

In an effort to remove the stigma surrounding the issue, EY launched its “We Care” program later that year. The program—which includes virtual events, employee champions, and various other resources—is designed to increase awareness about the signs of mental illness and encourage employees to reach out when they need help.

Senior leaders frequently share their own stories at We Care sessions, talking frankly about their struggles with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. This is a powerful way to signal to everyone that it’s okay to talk about these issues—and that it won’t hurt your career.

Since launching the We Care program, the company has seen a 32% increase in calls to EY Assist. On the surface, this might sound like a bad thing. But in reality, it shows that employees feel more comfortable asking for help when they need it—before a small problem can spiral into something more serious.

Creating an environment where employees feel safe talking about their mental health issues—confidentially or otherwise—is a crucial first step for every company. Even if you can’t offer in-house counseling or similar resources, making leaders part of the conversation can go a long way towards helping people seek out the support they need.  

2. Genentech and others offer free or subsidized subscriptions to meditation apps

In 2015, a team of scientists at biotech company Genentech discovered the meditation app Headspace, and were inspired to conduct experiments exploring the effect the app had on their happiness at home and at work.

After seeing the data, Genentech rolled the app out to all its 14,000 employees the following year. Today, more than 2,500 Genentech employees use the app an average of four times a week.

“Headspace is giving us an opportunity to focus on the health and well-being of our employees,” says Nancy Vitale, senior vice president of human resources at Genentech. “Our mission is bringing breakthrough medicines to patients, and it’s critical to foster an environment where employees feel they can give their best.”

Studies have found that meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm can have a positive and lasting effect on mental health. And Genentech is not the only company using them. Google, LinkedIn, General Electric, and more also pay for or subsidize employee subscriptions to mindfulness apps.

Offering access to resources like these is an easy way to incorporate mental health into your workplace wellness program—without building anything from scratch. But mindfulness and meditation won’t work for everyone, so this kind of resource may work best as part of a wider initiative.

3. Bell gives employees 24-hour access to online mental health tools and resources

Canadian telecom giant Bell isn’t just looking out for the mental health of its own employees. It’s goal is to change the conversation about mental health in the workplace across the U.S. and Canada.

Bell’s journey began in 2010 when it created Bell Let’s Talk Day, a yearly event designed to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. On the day of the event, Bell donates five cents for every call and text made on its network, and for various interactions made across its social media channels. To date, Bell has donated more than $93.4 million to mental health initiatives across Canada.

With mental health awareness already playing such an integral part in its culture, Bell partnered with digital wellness platform LifeSpeak in 2013 to provide more resources for its own employees. Using the platform, employees can access mental health tools and assistance programs at any hour of the day or night.

These tools have proven invaluable to Bell employees, who access the wellness platform on 97% of all calendar days. Over a two- to three-year period after introducing the program, Bell saw a 20% reduction in short-term disability related to mental health, and a 50% reduction in relapse and recurrence rates.

For employees who do need to take some time off, the company is also experimenting with improving both its short- and long-term disability programs, making it easier for employees to return to work.

To help other companies adopt similar practices, Bell helped fund the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in 2013. This set of guidelines and resources was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and gives employers an easy place to start building mental health into their wellness programs. Bell says that when it began developing its own best practices, these kind of resources just didn’t exist.

Tying your internal wellness program to wider corporate social responsibility efforts is a great way to show employees your commitment to talking openly about mental health. It can also help employees who aren’t directly affected by these issues feel more connected to supporting their coworkers.

4. Staples Canada is piloting pharmacogenetic testing to help employees find the right medication for them

Staples Canada is taking a scientific approach to its mental health initiatives. The office supplies retailer is piloting a pharmacogenetic testing program that aims to help employees find the most effective medications for them. It does this by studying their unique genetic breakdown, which affects how the body reacts to a drug.

While it’s still too early to see results from this pilot, Staples Canada has been recognized for its other successful mental health initiatives. In November, it won a 2018 Workplace Benefits Award in the mental health category. Recently, it’s rolled out training to ensure its new managers know how to connect staff with available resources. Managers also receive a regular “mental-health minute.”

“This is a quick email that will take only a minute out of their day, with facts about mental health, contact numbers, and some highlights from our training sessions,” says Kate Tilsley, the company’s senior director of total rewards and HRIS. “The take-home message in all our mental-health initiatives is to remind people that it’s OK to have those conversations, it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s OK to offer help without passing judgement.”

While genetic testing might not be for everyone, sending out an easily digestible email containing resources and information is something every company can do. There are plenty of free online resources that you can turn to if you’re not sure where to start.

5. Regions Hospital created a relaxing space for employees to take a mental breather

Unfortunately, many mental health issues in the workplace are caused or triggered by stress. Knowing that its employees work in a high-stress environment every day, Regions Hospital in Minnesota decided to create a safe space to help them decompress during or after their shifts.

Opened in 2015, the Center for Employee Resilience is a calm, quiet space that offers coaching, yoga and meditation classes, aromatherapy, and other resources to help boost employee wellness. But more importantly, it lets them take a much-needed breather if they start to feel overwhelmed.

“The center is the largest space in Minnesota dedicated solely to making it easier for hospital employees to relax, restore, and renew,” says Megan Grangers, a communications consultant at HealthPartners, the group to which Regions Hospital belongs. “It has a quiet, spa-like feel and is open 24/7.”

Regions Hospital says the center helps employees achieve a healthy work-life balance, which can support mental health. One employee who sits in the center for ten minutes at the end of every shift says the opportunity to decompress makes it easier for her to unwind when she gets home—and improves her sleep.

You don’t need a whole center to help employees take five. A quiet part of the office will also do the trick, as long as people feel comfortable leaving their desks when they need a quick breather.

Changing the conversation about mental health at work

Mental health has been a taboo subject at work for a very long time, so any initiative may take time to become a comfortable part of the culture. It’s important not to rush things—no one wants to feel ambushed when it comes to their mental health.

Be patient, experiment to see what works for your company, and make sure that employees feel safe and supported at every turn. Your efforts will pay off in the long-run—in the form of greater productivity, fewer absences, and healthier, happier employees.

* Photo by Form on Unsplash and Headspace

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