Partner & Co-Founder at Kuroshio Consulting Inc., a management consultant with 20 years of international strategy consulting experience.
Mental Health America’s 2021 “Mind the Workplace” report shows that burnout, lack of supervisory support, workplace stress and financial insecurity are prevalent across organizations in the U.S. Many organizations still believe that offering benefit programs through human resources (HR) to access mental health services is sufficient, but according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), eight in 10 people don’t seek treatment due to shame and stigma. More than access is needed to support your employees’ mental health.
Workplace mental health requires an organizational culture shift. So how can organizations try to tackle this as more employees return to work in the new post-pandemic normal? Having worked with organizations across the U.S. on transformations and change management for over 20 years, I would recommend the following to enable culture change and provide employees an open, inclusive, safe environment to discuss mental health:
1. Identify roles that can create high levels of stress or lack flexibility.
These roles include safety-critical roles, front-line roles (e.g., customer service representatives, manufacturing plant personnel) and critical project teams that are delivering under significant deadline pressures. Once these roles have been identified, ensure you have proactive monitoring protocols in place. These can include daily team stand-ups, workspace neighborhoods, informal buddies and ways to reduce stress (e.g., on-site childcare services).
2. Provide training to supervisors and managers on normalization (prevention and destigmatization).
Using terms that are limited (e.g., burnout) can, unfortunately, increase the stigma. Provide mental health training and toolkits for your supervisors and managers to help them spot signs and handle different scenarios. To reduce the stigma, train your managers to talk about health holistically and share their own challenges.
Incorporate mental health language openly in your employee diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy and encourage supervisors and managers to spark open dialogues with their teams, balancing compassion and compliance. Encourage your managers to listen supportively and focus on providing a bridge to mental health resources — and not attempting to fix the problem. Also, train your managers to keep a constant pulse on their team members through informal contact instead of formal check-ins.
Consider utilizing a workplace mental health platform, especially for remote workers, to allow them to not only access targeted educational material but also conduct self-assessments and share them with their manager. This can help identify roles that may be causing employees stress and allocate additional resources toward overcoming their particular challenges (e.g., offering local counselors).
3. Offer internal mechanisms to learn about mental health.
Consider taking a mental health first-aid course as a team-building exercise to help dispel myths and to learn about preventative tools. Create a forum for individuals at all levels to share their own circumstances and how they overcame their mental health challenges. This could be on your intranet, in person or via a company-wide newsletter.
4. Showcase your CEO as the owner of your corporate initiative.
Many organizations are using a multipronged approach to tackling mental health challenges — whether that includes HR, DEI, learning and development, operations, etc. Deploying multiple initiatives is a fantastic way to start and set the tone, but there should be a single point of accountability across all initiatives.
Signaling that mental health is a priority and driving culture change requires a top-down process. I would recommend organizations’ CEOs take the lead in building and permeating a culture that normalizes mental health challenges. Their own sharing of experiences is a good way to begin reducing the stigma of mental health.
Making mental health an organizational priority by cultivating an inclusive culture is a critical step in ensuring that your workforce’s needs continue to be met. The end is in sight for Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean that employee mental health concerns dissipate. It should and will continue to be a priority as your organization plans for employees to return to the workplace. Try these four calls to action in order to improve your organization’s capability to better support mental health and create lasting change.