Most employees are reluctant to discuss their mental health with management, with their coworkers, or even with HR. The stigma that employees feel about this topic persists, despite the fact that studies show that 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental illness in a given year and 1 in 4 will experience a mental illness in their adult lifetime. 

Even worse, the silence surrounding mental illness could be costing your business. Employees who don’t seek care for mental illness have higher rates of absenteeism and “presenteeism” or the feeling of being “checked out” while at work. 

If you’re an employer who’s concerned about your employees’ overall wellbeing, what can you do to create a happier, healthier workplace? A lot, actually—but any potential for improvement begins with an open conversation. Here are 3 ways employers can reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and get the dialogue started:

1. Break the Silence. Speak First

Your employees will never feel like it’s OK to discuss their mental health concerns unless you speak first. Don’t feel like you have to get overly personal or spend 15 minutes at your next staff meeting going over your familial history of depression and anxiety. Small gestures and subtle reminders that mental health is part of your overall wellbeing are often enough to help employees feel less isolated—and less fearful that they’ll be stigmatized if they discuss their own mental health concerns. Here are a few ways you can begin to bring mental health into the conversation:

  • Remind employees about Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). If your workplace offers EAPs for employees seeking mental health care, remind your employees about this and other mental health resources while discussing their benefits. Make sure to train HR to do the same.
  • Make work-life balance part of the conversation. Check-in on employees who are putting in too many hours, have had a stressful family event like a death or divorce, or who seem to be struggling. Remind employees during staff meetings that you want to protect their work-life balance to help them prevent illness and burnout.
  • Discuss stress reduction strategies during staff meetings. Give employees 10 to 15 minutes at the end of your weekly staff meetings to discuss any issues or stresses they’ve had during the previous week and work together to find solutions. Keep it upbeat and focused on problem-solving—you’re not complaining for the sake of complaining. However, letting employees know that it’s alright to talk about the things that are creating stress for them in the workplace helps create a healthy work environment.
  • Check-in on employees who have experienced a mental health event. It’s common to check-in and send “Get Well Soon” wishes when an employee has the flu or a surgery. But does your workplace have a similar policy for employees who are seeking mental health care? If not, make this practice part of your workplace culture, too.

There are many other ways to open up a conversation about mental health in the workplace, many of which will be specific to your own employees and work environment. Pay attention to the things that are weighing your workforce down and look for opportunities to let your employees know that they’re not alone.

2. Start a Workplace Wellness Program

A comprehensive workplace wellness program will take more effort and pre-planning than the strategies listed above, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to address mental health in the workplace. Done correctly, a workplace wellness program can serve as a safety net for mental health concerns, especially for larger employers who may not be able to talk to every employee on a daily or even weekly basis. A good workplace wellness program will focus on a broad definition of wellness that includes mental, emotional, financial, and career health in addition to physical health. Create a program that encourages connection among employees, healthy competition, and open conversations about overall wellbeing. Some popular workplace wellness initiatives that impact mental health may include:

  • Exercise and healthy eating competitions
  • Lunch & Learns focusing on topics connected to mental health
  • Free mental health screenings
  • Onsite counseling sessions and other in-service events
  • Walking lunches, stretch break reminders, and outdoor time

When implementing a workplace wellness initiative, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. Enlist expert help if you’re worried that you don’t have the capacity to actively engage your workforce and encourage participation. Proactive MD partners with our clients to design workplace wellness programs specific to their employees’ needs. Our Patient Advocate acts as a powerful champion for workplace wellness, talking to every employee to understand the most pressing concerns, making sure employees understand all of their benefits, and encouraging employees to become active participants in their own health.

3. Bring in Mental Health Professionals

Inviting guests to speak about mental health concerns during staff meetings or workshops sends a strong message to your employees that their employer cares about their overall wellbeing. It also takes the pressure off of management and HR to feel like they have to have all the answers. Popular topics may include:

  • Protecting work-life balance and preventing burnout
  • How to handle workplace stress
  • Improving your financial wellbeing
  • How to get proper sleep
  • Bullying in the workplace
  • How to increase productivity at work
  • Career fulfillment and advancement
  • Finding your purpose at work

Get creative when thinking of topics and remember that not every speaker has to relate specifically to mental illness to have an impact on overall mental and emotional health. For example, studies have shown that employees who feel like they have room to grow and find their purpose in their career are far less likely to experience mental health concerns. Consider the topic of mental health in the broadest terms.

Employers who are able to create a healthy and happy work environment have the opportunity to increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, and care for their employees’ mental wellbeing.