Creating a Culture that Supports Mental Health in the Workplace

According to Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace report, a frightening majority of workers are suffering the effects of workplace stress with little or no support. In fact, 9 in 10 people reported that their workplace stress affects their mental health. 65 percent of those surveyed say their work environment makes it difficult to concentrate. And only five percent of employees believe their work environment is safe for people with mental illness.

All of this is alarming on its own. Factor in the dissolution of work-home boundaries with the increase of remote work over the past two years and the problems compound further. Workers are burnt out, stressed out, and dropping out of the workforce.

Enter people like Samanntha DuBridge, Vice President of Global Benefits, Culture/Employee Engagement, HR Mergers and Acquisitions, and Mobility at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, who have been working hard to revolutionize how we think about mental health at work. We had an inspiring conversation with Samanntha and she shared valuable insights on the topic. 

Why Is Mental Health So Stigmatized at Work?

“Stigma at work reflects the broader stigma against mental health in our society. Greater awareness and understanding around these issues is helping to slowly change our perception of mental health but we still have a long way to go.” 

According to Samanntha, “Employers play a vital role in reducing that stigma. Only 5 percent of employees “strongly agreed that their employer provides a safe environment for employees who live with mental illness” according to Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace report. “That means the vast majority of workers don’t feel safe disclosing their mental illnesses or the struggles related to them.”

“Add that to the reality that, in the workplace, the stakes are astronomically high. A negative response to a mental illness disclosure can affect your livelihood, your career opportunities, your earnings potential, and your family. Even if you’d hope your leader would be supportive, it can feel risky to acknowledge the need for help, and with their whole future at risk, some people just won’t raise their hand.”

“People still worry that acknowledging any type of mental health concern will be viewed as a sign of weakness, causing others to question your ability to focus, to perform, or to be an effective leader. Mental illness doesn’t make you a less capable person, however, and employers need to start acknowledging that if they want to make their workplace safer and more accessible,” Samanntha added.

How Do You Center Your Company Culture Around Wellness?

“Wellness” is a broad term but companies tend to focus on a narrow slice of employee wellness, particularly stress management. While helping employees manage their stress is certainly a good thing, it fails to address the root causes of that stress. 1 in 3 employees cannot afford their healthcare costs and over 60 percent of employees aren’t paid enough to save for an emergency. Studies also show that time away from work decreases stress and improves productivity when employees return. 

Samantha believes that “Truly integrating wellness into the company culture requires a long-term commitment and a focus on execution. It can’t be something you just say is important; you have to invest in employees and show that you really believe it.” 

“In the mental health space, that means being thoughtful about understanding employee needs and investing in solutions that can make a real difference (for HPE, we’ve done many things over time like movie screening of Angst, free access to mental health apps, etc). It also means investing in communications to help break down barriers, raise awareness, and let people know it’s okay to ask for help. 

This also includes making sure senior leadership is on board. Company leaders set the example by being open about their own mental health challenges. Then, get line managers on board. They are where much of the culture comes to life for employees. If managers are not supportive or only give lip-service to wellness, it will be obvious to employees and any broader messaging will feel hollow,” Samanntha shared with us. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Transforming your workplace’s perception of (and response to) mental health struggles will not happen overnight. But there are things you can do to get the ball rolling. Here are the practical steps Samanntha outlined:

Know what workplace burnout looks like.

Just being aware of what worker burnout looks like is also a great step forward. Being able to recognize the signs, both in yourself and in others, makes it easier to address and resolve before the burnout gets to be too much.

According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some signs of burnout to watch out for: 

  • Feeling emotionally drained
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disengaging during meetings
  • Reduced productivity
  • Feeling more cynical or resentful

Educate your leadership and employees on what the signs are and what resources are available to them.

Start discussions about mental health.

Not only will that get the ball rolling on finding ways to support workers based on what they actually need, just talking about mental health reduces the stigma that keeps people from getting help. Create a space where discussing mental illness won’t have consequences. Get senior leadership on board and aggressively confront the stigma around mental illness.

Make sure your sick leave policy includes time off for mental health.

The mind and body are intrinsically connected and sick leave should attend to both sides of the wellness coin. We’re all mature adults here; no one should need a doctor’s note to justify a sick day. In fact, requiring one can be an impassable barrier for workers with limited access to healthcare.

Establish guidelines for keeping work at work, especially for remote workers.

Go beyond just telling people to set their own boundaries. Make work-life balance the norm at your company and bake it right into company policy. Let workers establish their hours. Teach them how to set up auto-responders for email when they’re off the clock. The more downtime you give your employees, the better they’ll perform.

What other ideas do you have for shifting our perception of mental health in the workplace? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or on social media!