Why employee mental health is a "non-negotiable, must-have" discussion

A host of new platforms are helping gauge and monitor employee wellbeing. Here's how managers can use these tools and encourage open and honest dialog about mental health at work.

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Image: Shutterstock/Arts Illustrated Studios

The verdict is not out on how our new work-from-home world, officially ushered in during the global pandemic, will affect businesses and productivity. But one fact is clear: It is causing a big strain on mental health. Routines shifted and workloads at home increased, with extra childcare and eldercare on top of the regular work routine.

As TechRepublic reported , 80% of office managers and higher-up execs say they have been burned out, as well as 84% of security professionals, according to the 1Password survey "The Burnout Breach." The 2021 Gallup Global Emotions Report also highlights the fact that mental illness diagnoses are on the rise. Not only was 2020 the most stressful year recorded in Gallup history, but it ranked highest for negative emotions.

What does this mean? Stressed out employees are at greater risk for health problems, are less satisfied at work, and may also be more likely to quit.

These issues existed pre-pandemic, but "mental health and mental illness was so taboo and avoided with a ten foot pole," according to Melissa Doman, organizational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist and author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work: Here's Why… and How to Do it Really Well.

"Employee mental health has always been important," she said. "With the pandemic, it has now become a non-negotiable, must-have discussion." But while this topic may be coming late to the conversation, it's still better late than never. 

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team's mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Employees "needed the explicit permission to talk about these issues," Doman said. Employee programs have previously been interested in helping promote physical health among employees, as TechRepublic has reported .  Many new workplace initiatives may recognize the importance of checking in on employee mental health, "pulling back the curtain to show how people arrive at those opinions and assumptions and biases and perceptions of mental health and mental illness." 

The second piece, Doman said, is teaching employees the concrete skills required to talk about these issues at the workplace. "It's a language like any other language and a skill set, like any other skill set." 

Companies often don't know how important mental health is, Doman said, because it's not out in the open. Many people don't realize that "mental health also includes negative emotions that we're naturally programmed with to signpost to ourselves and others that something isn't right." In other words, it's important to normalize talking about the "crappy emotions that we naturally feel and shouldn't be ashamed to display," she said.

Employees may (rightly so) be afraid to speak up about these issues at work. But it's critical that employers create a safe space to encourage these conversations. 

Part of this is a rethinking of the messages promoted in company culture. For instance, stressing the importance of leadership stoicism, or stigmatizing language around mental illness, can discourage employees from speaking up. These are the "inside work" factors that may prevent these conversations. Further, there are outside-of-work factors — for instance, family background, values and previous negative experiences with sharing, that also come into play.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Employers should be honest about why they care about employee mental health — they could start with a statement of intention, for instance, Doman said. And they should also be clear that these conversations are separate from any kind of performance evaluations. It is also critical that employers are careful about the security risks involved in telehealth, however, to ensure that personal data is not leaked.

The onus for getting the conversation started should not fall entirely on management, Doman said. "That's not fair and it's not accurate." True, "making sure that your team is doing well emotionally — that is part of a leadership development skill set that you must have," she said. "Going forward, any leader that doesn't know how to talk about mental health at work from this time on is going to have some serious difficulty."

While this is important, it's even more important that leaders use their position of power to set the right tone and "build that psychological safety for people to say, 'Hey, it's okay to bring this up.'" And then for employees to follow through — to self-advocate and speak up. 

SEE: Could the 4-day workweek remedy employee burnout? (TechRepublic)

Before choosing a platform, a company should enlist a solution engineer or salesperson to talk them through the fine points of the platform and the functionality: what they can expect from the program, how the data is collected and how it can be used. Additionally, they should learn about the long-term success of the program.

Employers should decide which tools make sense for employees, and then help them with a technical walkthrough, Doman said, to see how the tools are actually going to be used. She stressed that testimonials can be helpful in making evaluations, as well. 

One underutilized resource, Doman believes, is the EAP — employee assistance program. "I shout it from the rooftops — use your EAP, please!" she said. But during this mental illness epidemic, "platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace can get you connected to licensed therapists remotely really, really fast. And these are qualified, licensed, vetted, credentialed therapists."

Finally, it should be clear that it is not required for employees to share anything they're not comfortable with. Rather, "it's about giving them the tools and making them understand that it's safe to share, and explaining why," Doman said. It's also about explaining why the data is important, what employers will do with it and how to start the conversations.

Recommendations

Not sure where to begin? Of the multitude of tech resources available to monitor and improve mental health, Doman recommends these resources as credible:

Getting a therapist

    • BetterHelp: The largest professional therapy platform, BetterHelp is available on mobile, desktop and other devices.
    • Talkspace: App-based therapy, available 24/7.
    • Ginger (merging with Headspace): Offers a range of services, from therapy to meditation; popular with big businesses.
    • Cerebral: Combines therapy offerings with assessments and medication delivery. 

    Managing stress

      • Calm: One of the most popular meditation apps, offering daily readings, stress-reducing sessions and sleep sessions.
      • Headspace: App for meditation and sleep, with sessions for every level, from beginner to expert.

      Community

        • The Dinner Party: A platform to help 20- and 30-year olds experiencing grief to connect with others.

        • 7 Cups: An app that helps you connect to anonymous, virtual listeners, so you can share your problems safely.

        Wellbeing check-in

          • Daylio Journal: Bullet journaling for self-check-ins.
          • iMoodJournal - Mood Diary: Helps record and track your daily moods.
          • MoodKit: Helps you pinpoint and track moods and includes reminders and exercises to help improve your thoughts.
          • CBT Thought Diary:  Based on cognitive behavioral therapy, this app allows for expressing positive and negative thoughts, to help get out of negative thought-spirals. 

          So — what happens once the data is collected? "Conversations, conversations, and you guessed it — more conversations," Doman said. "Supportive and purposeful conversations are what help people get through the day. As with developing any skill set, you'll need to provide resources to show them how."

          The reason that employees are being offered these tools should be clear — it is not to penalize employees or spy on them, but it is out of genuine concern to foster a safe space in the workplace for these conversations. 

          "You can have all the data in the world, but if you're not [integrating] these conversations into the overall culture in day to day practice, there's no point," Doman said.

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