After Sharon Rosenblatt was diagnosed with PTSD, she was met with trials in her workplace—especially among those who didn’t understand her health condition.

Since small businesses are often exempt from many of the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, she found herself without many of the protections designed to equip her at work. Fortunately, a forward-thinking employer met her where she was at, and—as a result—she considers herself part of a trailblazing team that accommodates people of all abilities—especially those with mental health challenges.

“I request flexible hours, which allows for me to workout at lunch and make up the hours later,” says Rosenblatt. “Running has been one of the best accommodations, now coupled with yoga, to empower me. It’s been more helpful than many of the medications I’ve been on, with way fewer side effects.”

As taboos about mental health continue to break down and conversations about managing the stress of work gain more attention, many employers are considering their own role in the mental health of their workforce. From stress-relieving benefits to support for those struggling, mental health has become a central theme for employers looking to create thriving office cultures.

 

The Money Behind Mental Health

The statistics behind mental health problems in the workplace are staggering—nearly 1 in 5 employees admit to struggling with a mental health issue in the past month. When compared to the costs associated with 25 of the most expensive health issues, depression ranked #1—with anxiety close behind at #5.

What is most surprising about the cost of mental health issues—whether officially diagnosed as a condition by a medical professional or not—is the “soft” expenses that can add up for a business. General feelings of stress or anxiety have a profound effect on the productivity of a workplace, and doing nothing may not be the best option. A 2017 study, for example, showed a direct correlation between managers who took a 4-hour mental health training and employee sick time. While the positive change was slight (a decrease of 0.28 of a percentage point in those who reported to the trained managers), it moved the needle. That simple, 4-hour investment yielded a reduction of 6.5 sick hours per employee over six months or a 10 to 1 return from the management training course.

 

Addressing the Stigma

American workers value privacy, which is one of the reasons you don’t often hear that someone is struggling until the problem overtakes them. As a result, employers have the tricky job of being supportive of issues while still giving workers much-needed respect and autonomy. Dr. Sal Raichbach PsyD, LCSW of Ambrosia Treatment Center, a clinic that specializes in addiction recovery, acknowledges this delicate balance.

“Mental health issues are medical, so privacy should be of utmost concern to managers. However, it’s also important to create a work environment where people can offer each other support, and that can get difficult if they aren’t aware of the issues their coworkers are facing. The best policy, in my opinion, is to foster a stigma-free environment that encourages staff to reach out for help, whether that be to HR, their manager, or a friendly coworker. Managers or human resources should step in and offer help when they observe a team member who is engaging in dangerous behavior on the job or is emotionally impaired in a way that impacts their work.”

Employees should also take some responsibility in tending to their mental health on a daily basis—even before symptoms start. Raichbach urges workers not to ignore concerns and take them to a doctor, counselor, or therapist early on. From there, the professionals can form a partnership to determine if the struggles are situational—due to life changes, for example—or part of an underlying mental illness. He points to frequent absence, isolation, inability to regulate emotions on the job, and decreased job performance as signs that it may be something more serious.

 

A Proactive Approach

While every career has the potential to add stress to a person’s life, some jobs are more demanding than others. Take Project Harmony, for example. This Omaha-based organization’s mission is serving child abuse victims and their families, and while the work is honorable and the impact terrific, the toll on those serving others can be life-changing.

“So many times, over the last 20 years, I have heard people ask, ‘How do you do this every day?’” says Project Harmony Executive Director Gene Klein.  “I used to think we were resilient, strong, capable, and as a result ‘managed’ the impact really well. I still think we have incredibly strong and caring employees, but as this work goes on, we must respond by creating a culture that acknowledges the toll which in turn strengthens our response and impact.”

Management at Project Harmony takes proactive measures to care for the mental, physical, and spiritual health of their teams every day, acknowledging that self-care is one of the most crucial factors for success. Every new hire develops a personalized self-care plan as part of the new employee orientation process. Each team member is supported uniquely, depending on their own needs, strengths, limitations, and the support structure that exists in their own lives. Project Harmony walks through the following four-step process with staff to help build a plan that is right for that employee:

 

1)   Evaluate coping skills

2)   Identify self-care needs (daily vs. emergency situations)

3)   Barriers and areas for improvement

4)   Creating the plan

 

In addition to re-evaluating the plan regularly, especially when work or life demands significant change, they devote a day each year to re-energize and reflect through wellness workshops and presentations. Regular use of chair massages, yoga, and lunch-and-learns help keep the mood manageable and give workers the opportunity to relax, as well.

 

How Managers Can Help—Now

Even if your workplace doesn’t have a robust blueprint for addressing mental health now, it doesn’t mean you can’t start taking positive action right away. Experts we talked to emphasized that it’s possible to keep the focus on performance and accountability without prying for details. Reaching out with a simple “I can tell something is bothering you. How can I help?” may be the much-needed first steps to opening dialogue through improving job capacity and addressing mental health concerns where they manifest.

Sharon Rosenblatt credits her employer Accessibility Partners for looking past any perceived liability to understand her unique needs—while nurturing her distinct gifts. “Dana Marlowe (my boss) taught me the value of being flexible and patient with myself, but still pushing me to follow through on work deadlines through the power of an alternative work schedule and a new way to do things.” The model created at this small business is something Rosenblatt wishes every company could strive for.

Fatigue, anxiety, or sadness that one is unable to bounce back from are signs one may need to ask for help. When issues are identified, there is no reason to feel that the workplace alone should handle the burden, however. Many employee programs exist with the mission to give support to hurting workers in a confidential manner and through all areas of their lives.

Remember, while mental health opportunities can be detected at work, most workplaces are not designed to be the “everything” in management and recovery. Karen Carlucci, LCSW, reminds us that Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services can be made available to all employees and may include mental health-related assessments, short-term counseling, and critical incident support.

“One of the challenges that arise is that the EAP is not always advertised beyond initial hire or only after a critical incident. Making the EAP more accessible and advertising what it can offer can help normalize its use. HR and management teams can promote it as part of the overall wellness and health benefits package,” Carlucci stresses.

 

The Future of Mental Health at Work

All of the experts we talked to seemed hopeful about the direction of mental health in the workplace. Cultures are allowing for employees to speak up if working conditions are declining or unfavorable, taking time to disconnect from the office, and making healthy bonds with coworkers.

The stigma of mental health still exists but it’s fading, and it’s ultimately up to management and HR teams to lead the way in making real change. This may require them reaching out for help themselves, normalizing the act of getting support, and proving that ignoring problems won’t ever make them go away.

As Rosenblatt reminds us, getting the help you need at work can promote a freer way of living. “The empowerment has been wonderful for me, and I no longer feel in hiding at work.”