Creating Employee Wellness and Mental Health Programs in the Workforce
For decades, employers routinely accepted a worker taking time away from work if they were physically ill. But what about a mental health day? In a 2020 Paychex Survey assessing current mental health challenges for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMB) in the COVID-19 era, employers and employees revealed that 1 in 4 workers in a business with 2-99 employees reported a deterioration in their mental health since the pandemic began.
Dismissing employee mental health can be a missed opportunity. Managing deadlines and juggling multiple responsibilities while negotiating interpersonal relationships with colleagues can create stress and anxiety for an employee. Add this stress to the increasing complexity of managing daily life outside of work and employee burnout with its associated symptoms of fatigue, depression, cynicism, irritability, and poor work performance can become a significant problem for employers.
Countless studies have also revealed that the mind and body are intimately connected. Stress and the associated burnout that often comes with it can manifest itself physically in the form of stomach pains, headaches and pave the way for longer-term chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. Collectively, poor emotional health in the workplace can sabotage productivity and creativity, impact premiums, and erode the overall condition of an organization's corporate culture.
The 2020 SMB Mental Health in the COVID Era Paychex Survey revealed that a notable percentage of employees have experienced a decline in their mental health when compared to pre-COVID-19 levels across many issues. Employers should be aware of the percentage of employees who reported feeling worse about the following issues:
- Increased anxiety: 31%
- Decreased enthusiasm: 24%
- Reduced focus: 21%
- Increased depression: 20%
- Decreased teamwork: 16%
It's not just employees who are at risk of decreased performance levels. The same survey reported a negative impact of employee challenges on company performance across key metrics that include revenue, profitability, customer retention, employee morale, output, and competitiveness.
Interestingly, employers said they believe employee mental health has improved since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the Paychex survey. Such a response reveals a gap between employer perception and the reality of employee mental health.
Additional findings shed light on how employers can help their businesses attract and retain employees by expanding employee wellness and mental health programs. Consider this: 66% of employees reported feeling better about their employer after using a mental health benefit, but 59% of employers are not planning on offering any new programs. Moreover, 60% of all employees surveyed said that mental health support programs and benefits are important when applying for or considering a job. That number jumps to 80% among employees aged 18-39.
This article will discuss how to create an employee wellness program that includes mental health benefits, the education and awareness needed to support such a program, considerations for mental health policies, and ways to provide mental health resources to employees.
How to create a mental health program
With mental wellness in the workplace playing an influential role in the overall success of your business, establishing an employee wellness program may be a critical step to support your workers' emotional and mental well-being. If you are wondering how to create an employee wellness program, understand that for a program to be truly effective, it must be supported with education and awareness, clear policies, and easy access to employee mental health resources.
Education and awareness
When mental health is not discussed in an open and frank manner, awareness, concerns, and questions about mental health in the workplace risk being neglected. There are several ways to help increase awareness and provide education surrounding the topic of mental health and wellness.
- Openly communicate. One of the most important steps in creating a wellness program and promoting emotional health in the workplace is to create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing the challenges they are experiencing. Psychological safety (the ability to be oneself without risk of judgment or negative consequences) is paramount to employees feeling emotionally secure in their work environment and developing meaningful relationships with their colleagues. Employers should clearly communicate that any form of bullying or harassment is not acceptable, and openly bring attention to the behaviors that may erode psychological safety such as political extremism, outward righteousness, or aggressively "taking sides" in disputes.
- Provide educational resources on mental health.Strengthen your workplace communication efforts on mental health by providing educational resources on what mental health is, how it can impact employees in the workplace, and resources available for employees. Provide easy access to national organizations such as Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. Finally, don't overlook the role employees can play in helping each other. Encourage them to recognize when a colleague might be in emotional distress and that reaching out is a normal, caring reaction that can be impactful to an individual who is at risk of feeling isolated or burdened with anxiety.
- Provide mental health trainings for managers. Getting your managers on board and informed is a key part of how to implement a mental health awareness program in the workplace. By training management on how to spot symptoms of potential issues, you can jumpstart your business's mental health program. Be sure that training emphasizes that mental health awareness includes factoring in the individual nature inherent to each employee and that responses should be customized to the differences in how an individual acts, thinks, and feels.
Create policies related to mental health
Increasing awareness and education about mental health and wellness in the workplace is one part of the equation but backing up the discussion with policies shows employees that your organization is serious about the topic. Clear mental health policies can serve as a preventative measure that can support mental and emotional health and inform staff on how to handle issues that do arise.
Examples of mental health policies include those that clearly articulate your organization's stance on discrimination, bullying, and harassment and the consequences of engaging in these behaviors. Another example is identifying a safe and supportive vocabulary that encourages inclusion, diffuses potentially contentious topics, or calms a mental health crisis. If policies are already in place, now is an excellent time to make sure they aren't outdated. Update and improve them to support employees' needs and expectations in a COVID-19-era work environment and beyond. Have the policies legally reviewed to make sure they do not increase other risks such as jeopardizing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or state disability protections.
Equally important is to make sure all employees — from entry-level to upper management — know what to do in the event of a mental health crisis. It's common for an organization to believe it knows what to do, but without a playbook or a succinct and clear action plan, chances are high that when a mental health crisis arises, there may be an increased risk of confusion and chaos.
Provide mental health resources
The number of mental health resources and mental health initiatives you can offer is only limited by your imagination. Support groups, wellness programs, and their associated activities, phone numbers to hotlines and websites to local social services, as well as posting easy-to-find information on your health network provider are all actions that cost little money and can be easily implemented. The following mental health initiatives are also worth exploring as easy-to-implement and affordable resources that can make a significant and positive impact on your employee mental health and wellness programs.
- Employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP may give employees access to free and confidential assessments, counseling, referrals, and follow-up services, which can often be accessed from the safety and privacy of their own home. Some EAPs also incorporate a digital platform that provides screenings and personalized treatment plans that can help an employee in a moment of need. Employees are using their EAPs. According to the 2020 Paychex SMB Mental Health in the COVID-19 Era survey, employees stated that programs that offer referrals for behavioral health or substance use disorders are very helpful.
- Wellbeing apps. Apps that promote mental health wellness have become increasingly popular. These may include guided meditations, advice, or integrate with health insurance biometric screenings for a personalized experience. Wellbeing apps typically have a free version and a more robust paid subscription. Employers may wish to consider offering to pay for the full subscription as one way to provide an additional benefit to employees and show that you prioritize a culture of mental health awareness.
- Mental health education. ;In addition to providing resources that ask an employee to initiate an action (download an app, contact the EAP), consider increasing mental health awareness and education by bringing classes and speakers to employees. Lunch 'n' learn series, health fairs, or even a meditation/mindfulness class before or after work can help make it easier for employees to give attention to their mental health. Tips and recommendations can also be sent directly to employees in the form of a monthly downloadable calendar with suggested daily wellness activities or an email newsletter.
Workplace mental health and well-being cannot be sectioned off into siloes that are separate from overall employee performance. The symptoms surrounding decreases in mental health — stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, cynicism, and associated physical conditions — are issues everyone grapples with at some point in their lives. More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, consider that many employees may be struggling now more than ever. Taking the time and effort to create an employee mental health and wellness program for your workplace sets up your business and your staff for the best possible version of a healthier, happier, and successful future.