Every year in May, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) promotes mental and physical well-being with “Mental Health Awareness Month”. It’s an opportune time for people to evaluate where they are in terms of their own lives, and seek help if they need it. It’s also a sound reminder that the person that sits at the desk across from you at work could be dealing with some pretty serious mental illness problems in secret.
Despite this awareness of an issue that one in four people will experience at some point in their lives, the workplace is still hush-hush about talking about mental illness. Oftentimes, individuals don’t realize they have a problem until things spiral out of control. They may be treated badly by co-workers or supervisors for inappropriate emotional responses or odd behavior. Worse yet, people dealing with mental illness may feel lost in a system that doesn’t understand them so they give up on life.
What can employers do to improve mental health at work and further, what are some resources that employees can turn to if they need help?
One of the advantages of working for a company that cares about the wellbeing of its employees is that there are often benefits that employees can use when they are dealing with mental health challenges. The most common benefit is an EAP, also known as the Employee Assistance Program. The Society for Human Resource Management refers to an EAP as, “a work-based intervention program designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance.”
In most cases, the EAP is useful for providing information and referrals to services employees may need to resume their normal level of productivity. Everything is personalized on a case-by-case basis. Manned by real people, an EAP includes a toll-free number whereby the employee speaks with a counselor who can point them in the right direction. This is a 100% confidential service and it costs nothing to use it. Note that the human resource department will be notified that the employee has accessed the benefits, but the calls are never recorded and no information is shared with HR or any other employer member.
Using the EAP is just the first step in improving mental health in the workplace. Employers can reduce mental illness by offering health insurance that covers mental health counseling or therapy, as well as medications and treatments. Plan documents should clearly state what is covered and there needs to be a directory of mental health providers that’s easy to access.
The work environment can have a big impact on how employees feel too. Opening up work spaces to let in plenty of natural light can boost Vitamin-D levels in employees, which helps with mood and performance. Having fresh air circulating and plants to process carbon dioxide can improve oxygen levels to the brain. Soft seating and office work areas that promote collaboration can help reduce the ostracization of any employees. Offering a quiet rest area in the building for employees facing tiredness or other symptoms of mental illness can provide a place to recharge. Game rooms and exercise equipment promote physical activity which has been shown to increase good-feeling chemicals in the body.
Other factors that can help improve mental health include management education and awareness of the signs of mental illness. For example, managers may not realize that when employees withdraw from their peers or continually miss work days, they could be dealing with depression. Employees who express fear over working with certain clients or on some types of projects may be dealing with anxiety. There are also other chronic illnesses that include components of mental illness, such as Fibromyalgia, Autoimmune disorders, and Cancer. Even hormonal issues in a man or woman can create issues in their mental well-being and job performance. Never try to diagnose the problem; just be understanding that it happens often.
It’s important to be a manager who has empathy for others. Employees who are dealing with mental illness are already embarrassed and frustrated over it, and are making every effort to do their best at work daily. Take the time to recognize all of your employees, because you do not know what they are coping with.