Global employers look to make progress on mental health initiatives

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While employers have made strides in improving workplace mental health, many have not yet found a way to expand these initiatives to diverse workforces.

That’s according to Peter Varnum, lead of global mental health and non-communicable diseases at the World Economic Forum. Though many companies have made progress in bringing mental health programs to their employees, many global employers with different offices and diverse groups of workers haven’t yet found a way to make the programs work successfully.

“My own hypothesis is culture is certainly influenced from the top down, [from the] global CEO,” he said Monday on a webinar hosted by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. “[But] what happens in a Hong Kong office may be very different from what happens in a London office. We don’t have the data or the stories yet.”

See also: The true cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace

Mental health is projected to cost organizations $16 trillion in lost output by 2030 and it has become a major priority for the WEF, Varnum said. Depression and anxiety are some of the leading mental health problems employees are experiencing, and the forum has partnered with employers including Accenture, Barclays, Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson and HSBC to tackle some of these issues.

“There are progressive multi-national [employers] that are doing interesting things in this space in regards to own practices,” he said, noting WEF’s partnership with the City Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of organizations that come together to discuss mental health in the workplace.

In the U.S., one of the ways employers have addressed mental health is by starting with a common framework across the organization. Then companies leave room to adapt the programs locally, said Mike Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions.

“They empower leaders to adapt it within their cultures,” Thompson said. “That seems to be the magic button. There’s more universality on this topic than you might otherwise think.”

See also: Dispelling the stigma around mental health disorders in the workplace

Equipping managers with the skills to be more in-tune with how to deal with mental health issues is another way to break down stigma and make it more likely that workers will seek help, Varnum added.

“Nothing matters in mental healthcare if stigma is still a barrier,” he said.

Providing mental wellness benefits are another way employers can reduce the burden of mental health issues in the workplace — and so far, companies are taking note. Ocean Spray, for example, recently said it would eliminate mental health copays for employees. Johnson & Johnson instituted an employee resource group to dispel stigma surrounding mental health and direct workers to resources that may be useful for them.

But instituting programs for their own employees isn’t the only way employers can work to address mental health issues, Varnum said. They also should take opportunities to invest in the local, and global, community. For example, last year Johnson & Johnson partnered with the government of Rwanda to support mental health initiatives, including providing long-acting injectable medications to individuals with schizophrenia.

Employers are in a unique position to make a difference in their own community when it comes to mental health, Varnum said. Because the economy is strong and many individuals have more trust in companies than they may have in local governments, private sector employers are in a position to get more heavily involved in the mental health discussion.

“There’s more trust in local level community involvement,” he said. “They have space to play within their local communities.”

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