Health+Benefits the April 2021 issue

Mental Health All-In

If company leadership doesn’t talk about mental health, employees won’t either.
By Katie Oberkircher Posted on March 11, 2021

In part two of a three-part Q&A series with diversity and inclusion consulting firm All of Us, founder Andrew Phillips unpacks how employers can respond to and offer support for mental health issues that surface in the workplace while at the same time navigating the need to focus on company growth and employee productivity.

Q
When an employee discloses a mental health issue, employers have to balance offering access to the appropriate resources while understanding the impact it might have on that individual’s team and workload. How involved should employers be after finding out that news, and how do they decide what accommodations, if any, to make?
A
It is important to be aware that not all mental health issues are the same and the response will differ by individual. For example, in some cases the person will want to have some time off, while in others they will want to carry on working. Encouraging someone to take some time off if they don’t want to could be worse than doing nothing, as the individual may think the business is taking the first step toward ending employment.

The key is to show empathy and support. Don’t pretend to understand what they are going through; they may not themselves. Employers should express support and convey that the key leaders and the business as a whole are keen to help in whatever way they can. There is a risk of being too involved and also of not being involved enough, which is why workplace training can help. However, as long as the employee knows that the employer views these challenges as ones that can be worked through together, that is an appropriate first step.

Businesses will want to continue to provide a great product/service to their clients and for all colleagues to enjoy their work. There is a risk of disruption if an employee is not performing at his or her best or is away from work for a period of time. Speak to the employee and find out what he or she thinks. Discuss what is best for the business and for the employee and plan around that. The employee may want the rest of the team to know what is going on or may not. Employers should respect that decision as much as possible.

It is important that the company and management let employees know they are supportive before an employee discloses an issue. The employee will typically have felt poorly for some time before disclosing any mental health issues. Fear as to how the employer will respond to any disclosure may make the employee anxious, so a clearly supportive approach may help stop an issue from escalating.

Q
What kind of employee data insights would point to the opportunity for an organization to make HR or operational changes versus deploying a new employee benefit to alleviate workplace stress and normalize discussing mental health?
A
All employee data insights are relevant. What matters is how you interpret them. If an organization struggles with employee retention, sees many newcomers leave after a short period of time, or has an increase in sick-leave cases, it can all indicate a poor workplace culture. If that is indeed the case, employees probably don’t feel appreciated or heard, which affects their well-being, job satisfaction, overall happiness, and commitment to the organization. HR and, even more so, the leaders of an organization need to step up and be vocal about their commitment to change and willingness to discuss their own mental health. A successful culture change can only happen from the top down.
Q
Understanding that mental health issues are a result of compounding factors, what kind of employee engagement data would highlight opportunities for employers to implement strategies regarding food insecurity or financial wellness?
A
There are several ways to identify staff issues related to financial wellness and food insecurity. Both topics are high on the agenda of HR departments in businesses across the world. The All of Us platform has an integrated polling function that allows HR departments to take snap polls about specific topics and sense the overall well-being of employees. We also run a sentiment analysis that uses natural language processing to identify the overall sentiment of a business at any given time. Companies also run employee surveys, which can provide meaningful insight into the concerns and causes of stress.

A recent Cigna global well-being survey found that 87% of employees are stressed at work—with personal finances being the top stressor—and 38% claim no stress management support is provided at all. Financial well-being is clearly a big issue, and there is a feeling that businesses do not do enough to support their staff in this or, if they do, they do not make clear what they offer in terms of support.

Food insecurity falls into the broader well-being category and can be one of the causes of increased sick leave, which has a massive impact on business performance. While harder to identify specific issues through the traditional staff surveys and polls, there is no doubt that food insecurity is a business issue that has to be managed carefully.

There has been a significant rise in the number of tech businesses built to provide benefits to employees that cover a wide range of health and well-being issues delivered to staff via an app so resources can be accessed as and when required.

Q
What is the most creative example you’ve seen of a new solution implemented by an employer to address the mental health of its employee population?
A
We have recently worked with a London-based mental health charity that has showcased a very adaptable approach toward managing its employees’ mental well-being. At the beginning of the pandemic, they encouraged everyone to join social Zoom lunchtime calls, coffee breaks, and so on. However, they soon realized their staff were getting fatigued from all the screen time and made a decision to significantly reduce the amount of social calls. They have also declared Wednesday mornings to be completely call-free, meaning everyone can catch up on emails without stressing about yet another video call. Seeing their employees end up working longer days than they would in the office, they also decided to close one Friday per month so everyone is somewhat forced to take a break.

The results are great: employees feel cared for and heard, are better equipped to plan their weeks, and feel the employer is responding and adapting as necessary through this new normal.

Q
How do you advise employers in a situation where a portion of their employee population embraces initiatives to destigmatize mental health while another portion is either indifferent or rejects attempts to jump-start that kind of cultural change?
A
Embracing inclusive initiatives matters for a whole range of reasons. Our research indicates that customers are increasingly buying things from companies that share their values. Second, some employees will only join and remain at a company that embraces inclusion. Third, if some employees do not embrace inclusion at a company where that sentiment is embedded into the workplace culture, they are at risk of huge reputational damage. As a result, management should explain to employees that are indifferent to change that failure to embrace it is a risk both to their own success and career and to that of the company.

In many cases, indifference is the result of ignorance, which may not be the individual’s fault and instead may purely be the result of that person’s reality. A white person might never see racism in day-to-day life. Thus, a good approach is to open people’s eyes to the experiences of others. Companies often do this by sharing case studies of their employees who are ambassadors and represent the issue and the benefit/support that the business brings to the issue. Role models are widely used to spread the word and show proof of how a company works hard to help those suffering with their mental health at work.

You can also point out that clients and colleagues will have close family and friends with a range of mental health challenges. Show empathy, include everyone in the conversation, educate where necessary, and highlight the importance of inclusion in staff morale and company performance.

Q
What advice would you give to company leadership who are hesitant to speak to employees about mental health?
A
Don’t be shy! Lots of people are nervous about the saying the wrong things about mental health or D&I in general. As a result, they say nothing. It’s OK to say, “I’m not an expert, but I want all employees to know that…” A little bit of knowledge gained by reading reputable websites or through workplace training will help build confidence, but ultimately what matters is sincerity and empathy rather than being able to repeat exactly what a textbook might say.

The most critical action company leadership can take is to notify staff that they are supportive. This is largely unknown and causes huge anxiety among staff struggling with their mental health.

Katie Oberkircher Director, Health Policy & Strategy Read More

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