Workplace Mental Wellness

484435_485620284838261_1377543704_nQuick, name the number one health care issue that costs U.S. employers about $100 BILLION in lost productivity each year. Heart disease? Cancer? Nope. Mental illness is the leading cause of employee absenteeism, and yet it is often considered a taboo subject. Mental wellbeing impacts productivity, engagement, and health care costs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is also an issue of concern for employers with 15 or more employees.

Many MSEC member calls involve the emotional wellbeing of their employees and uncertainty as to how to handle such situations. Without formal training, there are legal and ethical limits to how an employer may respond. When I researched this topic, I found that there is a large gap in the U.S. response to this challenge. Canada has a national initiative to address workplace mental health. It offers workshops, training, and many free resources on the web. Queens University in Ontario has developed a certificate program to train workplace managers on effective means to manage this issue in their workplaces.

There is no such initiative in the United States, so how do US employers address this issue?Here’s a snapshot of effective first steps gleaned from my review of workplace mental health resources:

  • Workplace Culture and Leadership: it must be an organizational priority for employees to safely seek and receive help. Leadership is needed to remove any barriers from employees seeking resources.
  • Empathetic Coaching Skills: Managers need to be trained to effective communicate and coach. This includes recognizing common signs of emotional distress and appropriate responses. Training can prove beneficial to manage performance issues that may result from mental illness.
  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): If your organization offers an EAP, make it a priority for all managers to know how it works. Encourage and train staff on how to access it; don’t take it for granted that they “can figure it out” for themselves!
  • Community Resources: If your organization does not offer an EAP, identify community resources that provide low-cost counseling and similar services for employees. distribute a list of such resources for employees to contact on their own.

Major stumbling blocks to avoid include:

  • Ignoring Problems: This sends the wrong message and is disruptive to your work environment.
  • Attempting to Diagnose Employees: An employer’s focus must be on work-related behaviors and actions.
  • Acting as Therapist to Employees Who Ask for Help: Identify boundaries and stick to them consistently.
  • Discussing Specific Employee Ailments: As with all medical concerns, discussions must remain with those who “need to know.”
  • Not Listening: Listen carefully to what employees say and ask appropriate follow-up questions if necessary to identify opportunities to assist.

For MSEC Library and online resources that may prove useful for your organization, contact me at jmcdonough@msec.org or 800.884.1328.