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By and large, companies have ignored employee mental health. This is not due to a lack of care or concern. And it’s not related to having to provide extra services. In reality, mental health is one of the required areas that must be covered in organizational healthcare benefits. Instead, it has to do with the stigma placed on mental illness. Employees are afraid to share problems, as they may be perceived as a sign of weakness. They fear that sharing such personal issues may compromise their job security, leading to even larger problems. Instead, having strong mental health policies in place are a way to address that and help businesses.

Challenges in Helping Employees With Mental Health

Also, companies face legal obstacles in terms of how they approach the mental health of their employees. Technically, an employer cannot ask an employee directly if he is having mental health issues. Yet there are signs that an employer should be noticing that could indicate an employee needs help. For example, behaviors like unusual absences, emotional outbursts, and changes in personal hygiene could signal they need help. Also, signs that the employee has lost interest in work could mean he is experiencing mental health problems. When those signs appear, the employer can ask the employee whether everything is OK or whether he needs to talk about anything.

Businesses have ample motivation for a greater focus on employee mental health — and not just the tragic consequences of letting mental health issues go untreated. Today, there’s an increasing understanding of the value of allowing employees to live a more balanced life. This means that an employee must be allowed to be “human” and take the time she needs to deal with a family issue, whether it be grief, illness, or just the need to take a break and enjoy family time.

Addressing mental health issues in your business starts with establishing a strong mental health policy. This gives employees and management a framework to encourage proper treatment. It also lets employees know that the organization wants to remove any stigma surrounding mental health so they feel comfortable discussing any mental health issues with their direct managers. And as we’ll see, having a clear mental health policy can be an integral part of increasing productivity and improving the bottom line.

Mental Health Issues on the Rise

The statistics show that mental health requires serious attention. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has found that 18.5 percent of adults in the U.S., or 43.8 million, suffer from mental illness in any given year. Of those, 4.0 percent, or 9.8 million, experience a serious mental illness that significantly interferes with one or more major life activities, including their jobs. According to a Global Burden of Disease study, depression has become the world’s second-leading cause of disability.

NAMI also noted some of the consequences of these mental health issues. There is $193.2 billion in earnings lost annually in the U.S. as a result of serious mental illness. There is likewise a considerable impact on organizations whose employees miss work or are unproductive because they are struggling with a mental health issue. The indirect cost of untreated mental illness could be as much as $100 billion a year in the U.S., according to the National Business Group on Health. Then, there is the fact that untreated mental health issues could adversely impact the safety of other employees. Numerous workplace shootings illustrate that risk.

A Strong Mental Health Policy Improves Your Bottom Line

As anxiety and depression (and concurring substance abuse) become more prevalent, employers who want to retain and motivate productive employees — and consequently improve their bottom line — should be investing in their mental health policies. Happy employees are productive employees.

Think of it as an investment you would make in any asset. Rather than running an asset down and simply replacing it, you typically perform regular maintenance to keep it performing at its best. People are like those well-oiled machines or other assets you have in your organization. Take care of them, and they will do the same for you. Companies like Unilever and American Express are finding it’s an investment that pays a large return. It is worth the outlay of resources to create a comprehensive mental health policy and work environment that promotes employee well-being.

Defining a Strong Mental Health Policy

To gain the most benefit from providing assistance, determine if anything in the workplace could be creating undue stress. If you discover something, make the necessary changes.  This can be a starting point for framing your mental health policy.

Zeynep Ilgaz, president and co-founder of Confirm BioSciences, understands the important role of an employee assistance program (EAP) in an organization’s mental health policy. “Establishing a good employee assistance program can benefit your company a lot in the long run. EAP programs can provide your team with access to confidential professional help. This can include work-related issues as well as family and private issues. Another way you can help your team is by setting up a 24-hour and seven-days-a-week nurse hotline. This is a great way for your team to have access to a professional at any given time.” Ilgaz also says an organizational culture should show support for recovery. Also, it should focus on the team’s overall health and safety.

Best Practices for Mental Health Policies

Other research has suggested that these policies outline ongoing education and training, which is essential so that everyone is more aware of mental health in the workplace and feels confident discussing it. One recommendation is to focus on teaching others in the organization about the value of developing emotional intelligence. This is a way to be more empathetic and to help provide coping strategies for stress.

In a Harvard Business Review article, the president of Influence & Co. shared her company’s best practices for developing a strong mental health policy. To create a mental health policy that positively impacts the bottom line, it is important to define goals. Then, research and write a formal policy. From there, get legal advice, consult with a mental health advocate and introduce the plan to the organization. Finally, offer training first to leadership, then to employees. Another organization, Keen IO, went so far as to suggest a mental health mission statement to accompany the formal policy.

Final Thoughts

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in the workplace, but it’s up to employers to eliminate the stigma around the issue. Doing so is worthwhile from both a humanistic and a business perspective. Your talented workforce is an asset. Make sure they have the best care possible, especially when they are struggling. 

Peter Daisyme is the co-founder of Palo Alto, California-based Hostt, specializing in helping businesses with hosting their website for free, for life. Previously he was the co-founder of Pixloo, a company that helped people sell their homes online, that was acquired in 2012.

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