Are employers proactively tackling mental health in the workplace?


Mental illness in the workplace is an area of increasing concern, and there is a push to make work environments more compassionate and wiser toward mental health struggles. 

Moving towards a more humane model of management and acknowledging things like mental illness is the first step forward, says Aadil Patel, national head of the employment practice at leading SA legal firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

The cost of mental illness

Stigmatisation of employees with mental health problems causes massive challenges in the workplace and significantly affects productivity. 

In fact, Harvard Business Review published the findings of a US survey that revealed that 50% of millennials and 75% of Generation Z (anyone born after 1997) have changed employment for mental health reasons. This should be enough to drive companies and managers to rethink the way they operate.

Despite the fact that in the US over 200 million workdays are lost due to mental health conditions each year, mental health remains a taboo subject – so much so that, according to HBR, almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health.

David S. Mandell, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for Mental Health Policy and Services Research, says in a Knowledge@Wharton article: 

“... large-scale studies are saying when you treat depression in the workplace, you get a substantial return on investment relatively quickly, so there’s a real economic argument for reducing the stigma, as long as we can provide evidence-based care for [the employees]."

So it seems like helping valuable employees with mental health issues makes good business sense, and also benefits employee loyalty and retention. Through early intervention, effective treatment can take effect and not only benefit the employee, but the business as well.

But how can this be done?

Positive steps

Employees may subscribe to wellness and meditation apps, but this may not be enough to effectively address the problem. 

According to Patel, many employees would rather remain quiet about mental health issues than suffer the humiliation that may occur in a company that does not have a proactive programme in place.

“Every year mental health awareness campaigns provide evidence that society in general is becoming more enlightened regarding mental illness. The next step is proactive and constructive discussions between management and employees,” he says.

Patel adds that having processes in place to pre-empt, mitigate and manage mental health challenges can go a long way towards reducing the impact on company and employee productivity:

“There are many things that employers can do to be proactive. These start with driving a culture of positivity and openness where employees feel safe to speak to their managers and human resources departments. Positive language is the starting point.”

He also says that mental illness, like many other diseases, can be successfully managed and treated. Many companies have already established programmes to assist employees in dealing with mental illness or symptoms related to their conditions. It is important to equip these programmes properly so that they have their desired effect.

Ernst & Young (EY), a large international accounting firm, has taken a very positive step in creating its “r u ok?” programme to address mental illness. As part of the programme, the company provides resources such as 24/7 counselling support; management consultation; and counselling sessions by phone, online, or face-to-face. 

Ways employers can proactively deal with employee mental health include:

  • Opening dialogue between managers and employees
  • Becoming acquainted with the law
  • Not tolerating discrimination or stigmatisation of employees
  • Implementing employee and manager training regarding mental illness
  • Considering putting employee support programmes in place
  • Cultivating a non-toxic work environment
  • Developing a sound absenteeism policy that is cognisant of mental illness

More than this, it is also important that companies take a look at the workplace environment and ensure that they’re providing healthy workplace conditions that may not potentially be contributing to the stress levels of employees. 

Image: iStock

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