The crises, challenges, and trauma of 2020 and 2021 have put mental health front-and-center for employers like never before. But will this period represent a fundamental turning point for workplace mental health? Can we usher in enduring change that not only addresses the COVID-19 pandemic, but outlasts it? These questions are on the minds of business and HR leaders, mental health experts, and, perhaps most importantly, employees, who are reexamining why and how they want to work.
Dialogue and discussion are the key to finding answers. Across the U.S. and world, organizational leaders are having conversations about how to sustain and strengthen workplace mental health initiatives, make the future of work psychologically safe, and respond to the short- and long-term needs of workers. While this is an evolving discussion, a few key themes have begun to emerge. These principles can help employers to ensure the current focus on mental health translates into lasting solutions.
Responding to Tragedy and Trauma in the Workplace
Employers know that stress and trauma can each have a negative impact on mental health, especially given the traumatic events of the past 18 months. However, while stress can be managed, trauma is distinct and requires a heightened level of care and support. Because people dealing with trauma can often feel helpless, employers are increasingly directing mental health resources to proactively support these employees. A trauma-informed workplace has a plan in place to facilitate employees’ healing and resilience as they navigate crisis and recovery.
Recognizing the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Mental Health
Employees that belong to racial and ethnic minority groups face significant disparities in both mental health challenges and access to mental health care. And, again, the past year and a half has only underscored these disparities. For diversity and inclusion initiatives to create authentic change, organizations must take steps to build leaders’ cultural competencies—and this includes recognizing how public health frameworks apply to mental health conversations, now and in the future. What’s more, leaders should embrace the discomfort that arises from attending to negative feedback from employees in racial and ethnic minorities. Such feedback is critical for leaders who seek to establish enduring change in a workplace that values diversity and inclusion.
Storytelling Can Be a Catalyst for Change
People love stories. In fact, our brains are wired for them. Sharing personal stories in the workplace can enable and influence culture change because doing so builds trust and strengthens relationships, both of which are fundamental to organizational culture. In the past year, we have seen more employees and leaders sharing their personal stories at work. When employees and leaders amplify stories that narrate challenges and successes of all types, this can have a positive impact on mental health. Sharing stories also fosters empathy, or the ability to view experiences from the perspective of the storyteller, giving the listener a chance to reflect on their relationship to what is being expressed. This can make employees feel less isolated and more open to discussing mental health in the workplace.
Framing Workplace Mental Health as a Source of Positivity
Workplace mental health is often presented in terms of risk or negative consequences. By contrast, physical wellness is often depicted in terms of being an overall healthier and higher functioning individual. What would it mean to apply this positive framework to mental health? Instead of reacting to mental health and wellbeing with an acute or diagnostic approach, leaders should take a holistic view that frames the need for preventative care in a positive manner. Leaders can change the conversation around mental health in the workplace by ensuring employees can easily access resources and services and putting a positive frame on why they should proactively seek out these resources, even if they are not currently experiencing mental health challenges.
MORE FOR YOU
Eliminating Barriers to Care
For employers and organizations who want to promote mental health in the workplace, it is essential they remove barriers to care—especially availability and cost. Many leaders are driving lasting change and breaking down those barriers by connecting patients with providers, encouraging payers to cover a broader spectrum of mental illness, and providing new models of care through technology. Employers must also seek to accurately understand the length of care related to mental health challenges, so they can ensure employees have meaningful access to care for a sustained period.
Employers looking back on 2021 will see that the overall health of their workplace rests on their commitment to integrating mental health programs—not just now, but for the long-term. Thankfully, there is a growing movement, across sectors and national boundaries, to do just that. To learn more about how leaders are approaching these principles, the One Mind at Work Global Forum offers conversations, case studies, and insights from leaders in the field.