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Top 5 components of a workplace mental health strategy

Promoting mental health in the workplace requires creating an empathetic and stigma-free culture for employees. Learn five important facets of creating that.

Even before COVID-19, supporting employee mental health was becoming a greater priority for many companies since its effects have such a profound effect on both worker and organizational performance. But as with other aspects of wellness, workplace mental health is a complex issue and approaching it with the right strategy is critical.

Understand stress and the workplace

Mental health is closely tied with stress. And workplace stress is creating a significant toll for both employees and the companies for which they work, and that's particular true since the pandemic hit.

Three in four adults regularly feel stressed, according to the American Psychological Association's survey "Stress in America 2020." Workers are feeling burned out, and cited multiple stressors, including the lack of separation between work and home, unmanageable workloads and worries over job security. And as disruptions from the pandemic continue, more Americans are reporting symptoms of prolonged and acute stress. One in five workers said their mental health is worse than it was this time last year, according to the survey.

Employers pay a price.

Job stress and its negative effects on mental health cost U.S. employers nearly $300 billion every year, according to the American Institute of Stress.

Workplace mental health strategy

The coronavirus pandemic crisis will remain a workplace stressor even as workers return to the office. But employers can choose to combat its worsening effects as well as other negative factors that weigh on employee mental health.

Here are five ways employers can build a workplace mental health strategy.

1. Assess the current state 

Employers can't improve what they don't understand. Business and HR leaders can begin to understand their workers' mental health by developing a continuous listening strategy and gathering data on absenteeism, sick days, productivity and retention. They can also give in-depth surveys to focus on answering the following three questions:

Company culture: Does the culture de-stigmatize mental health? If yes, how? If no, what actions can help change the culture?

Manager mindset: Do managers show that they care about the mental health and well-being of their team members? What specific actions do they take?

Individual employee mental health: When employees feel stressed, do they know where to turn for assistance? Do they understand their mental health benefits?

2. Demonstrate empathetic leadership

Many leaders are understanding that empathy is a strength and are making moves in that direction. Empathy is particularly important when dealing with employee mental health. 

Marriott International leadership understood that when they created programs to lower stress -- including financial stress -- and boost resilience.

When the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 gave companies a tax windfall, the company's late CEO Arne Sorenson and current CHRO David Rodriguez created a $140 million package of programs to support employees, starting with a one-time $5-to-$1 retirement savings match. Marriott also launched a program called TakeCare, which provided Marriott employees with the opportunity to build skills, develop meaningful relationships and make a positive and sustainable impact on the world. TakeCare offers education and resources beyond physical well-being and includes programs that target mental and emotional health, career development, financial planning, team-building, recognition, social impact and sustainability.

"Choosing an employer is a lifestyle choice just as important as where you live, so your employer should add to the quality of one's personal and professional life," Rodriguez said about these efforts.

3. Weave mental health well-being into the workplace culture

Regardless of how strong your workplace health well-being program is, if it is not integrated into the company culture, it will not have traction or lasting impact on the organization and workforce.

"More companies need to embed mental health into everything they do -- from leader communications to new hire onboarding programs, leadership development training, and a host of ERG [employee resource group] programs already in existence at [many] companies," said Joe Grasso, a clinical psychologist at Lyra Health, a software company focused on mental health, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif. "More companies need to create open forums for employees to share their experiences in seeking mental health care."

Self-care is an important aspect of mental health. Business and HR leaders can work to create a proactive communications program that educates employees and their managers on the signs of burnout and how to put self-care into practice. Self-care starts with employers taking a deliberate approach and, to the extent possible, a holistic view of employee well-being and offering services and programs across physical, emotional, financial, social and spiritual well-being.

4. Educate employees on mental health services

Many workers don't understand how to access mental health services, and business and HR leaders need to correct this.

Sixty percent of employees paid for mental health care out of pocket in 2020 despite being insured by their employer, according to a survey by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and Lyra Health. The issue: Workers weren't using traditional employer assistance programs because they are difficult to understand and often the benefits vary by state.

Many workers don't understand how to access mental health services, and business and HR leaders need to correct this.

HR teams and other appropriate representatives need to communicate proactively about the benefit plan an organization adopts, explain what it covers and be clear about how to reach out for help.

A holistic workplace mental health strategy is key, but today a number of digital tools exist to help deliver that.

5. Measure mental health strategy effectiveness

As with any other initiative, companies need to establish metrics to measure the effectiveness of the mental health programs they establish. Companies will need to work with mental health providers on creating a dashboard of tools to measure the value of these services to the workforce. They also need to go beyond measuring participation rates to focus on clinical outcomes of the programs.

Jeanne Meister is managing partner of Future Workplace, an HR executive network and membership firm that offers peer networks and online courses, such as "Nurturing Employee Wellbeing," in Future Workplace Academy.

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