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Closing the Mental Health Support Gap at Work: 3 Primers for Leaders   

If you’re a leader in any capacity today, chances are you’re feeling the gap between two factors.

The first factor is an increasing number of employees with mental health issues because they’ve returned to work regardless of their readiness. The second factor may be your lack of an employee assistance program or the preparedness of your current one to meet a growing demand.

Some organizations have a wider chasm than others simply due to lack of urgency or awareness before the pandemic, while others are closing in on it because circumstances alerted them to the chronic need early on.

Urgency or diligence aside, employee mental health concerns are very real and getting only more so. I sat down with University of Colorado’s Dr. Neill Epperson and Dr. Matt Mishkind during one of my latest Off the Rak interviews. We unpacked this gap between the state of mental health as it relates to the workplace and where the opportunities are for first steps:

Step 1 – Use euphemisms with caution

The research community acknowledges that there is a great deal of power in naming things. Naming a being, event, or thing indicates a connection to it. Some call it a psychological ownership—the feeling that something is yours.

Perhaps this idea explains our conscious or unconscious sidestepping with the term “mental illness” in the workplace. The current overuse of terms like “wellness” or “mental health” in isolation from exact words, such as “depression,” “anxiety,” “addiction,” and “mental disorders,” does everyone a disservice.

Epperson and Mishkind both emphasized the importance of leaders setting the tone and calling this focus what it is: mental illness. Epperson agrees that this is a timely topic, but she worries about the use of words like “wellness” because it causes confusion when, really, we’re talking about mental illness.

“We really need to just say what it is… It’s not mental health we’re trying to treat; it’s mental illness,” said Epperson. Mishkind added that while these euphemisms can help people begin the conversation, it’s important for the person entering the discussion or offering services to also use “mental illness” to continue the conversation with clarity.

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Step 2 – Recognize the roles colleagues and culture play

Coworkers are often more aware of a peer’s change in behavior before leaders are. Mishkind pointed out that colleagues don’t require a clinical degree or even a great depth of knowledge but, rather, awareness, willingness, and a supportive culture to enter into mental health conversations.

These office mates can serve as a valuable first line of defense in recognizing when someone needs help. Again, a culture that educates its employees and makes it safe to acknowledge is key. Leaders must make an effort to model empathy and vulnerability so they create a culture that’s safe for these discussions about mental illness to surface because they do, in fact, affect work.

Mishkind said, “I recently met with a leader that had an employee hospitalized for a mental health crisis. He ended up meeting with the employee’s team, and just about every one of them mentioned that they had concerns over the past couple of months, yet no one mentioned it or talked to the employee. It was clearly the leader’s wake-up call that culture needed to change.”

Step 3 – Remember our humanity

According to Epperson and Mishkind, mental health (specifically depression) is the number one form of disability worldwide. They added that recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data suggest that depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays annually, at a cost of $17 billion to $44 billion for employers. The World Health Organization reports that every dollar invested in improving access to treatment leads to a return of four dollars in better health and productivity.

While the research underscores a bottom-line impact on an organization, we can’t forget that the data are about people, their lives, and their personal fulfillment. Without effective support, mental disorders and other mental health conditions can affect a person’s confidence and identity at work and their capacity to work productively.

It’s incumbent upon us to engage our teams with transparency and trust about our own vulnerabilities to create cultures where employees feel safe. Safe to address personal challenges so everyone can enjoy continuity, sustainability, and the fulfillment that comes from sharing a purpose.

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