3 ways companies can help tackle mental health issues

Register now

About one in five U.S. workers has a mental illness, but the majority has not disclosed it to their employer.

That should come as no surprise. The stigma attached to mental health issues runs deep. On the upside, with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, HR leaders have the perfect opportunity to refocus their efforts. They can look to the progress taking place at U.S. organizations, but they can also look to the progress being made overseas, especially by their British counterparts.

After studying model after model at companies headquartered in the United Kingdom, three trends in my research arose — ones with universal practicality, including here in the United States. To that end, companies looking to help the millions who suffer in silence can start taking or advancing these three steps.

1. Develop effective communications

The success of any well-being program largely hinges on its communications strategy. Does the messaging grab employees’ attention and encourage open dialogue? Every company culture differs — and with that, HR must develop tailored communication.

Given the sensitivity around mental health issues, optimal communications sometimes means finding ways that nudge individuals to take the lead. In 2014, banking and financial services company Barclays launched the “This is Me” campaign to raise awareness and break the culture of silence around mental health. Built around the concept of storytelling, the campaign has skyrocketed from nine employees to nearly 200 individuals having now shared their stories, with more than 60,000 visits to the web page. If just one of those visits helps an individual receive treatment they needed, consider it a job well done.

Employers should test the messaging before rolling out a communications campaign. For example, those who see mental health challenges as a weakness can negatively view the term “resilience” as “toughening up.” Also, to avoid casting judgment, employers should extend communications to the whole organization.

In light of increasing resource constraints, employers should make sure to communicate return on investment. Consumer goods company Unilever calculates the business impact of its well-being spend through a score card for senior leader engagement and a return-on-investment measure. The company has calculated a return of €10 for every €1 spent on well-being initiatives. Companies without existing programs should start with simpler measures, such as program participation rates and disclosure rates, while incorporating intangible benefits; anecdotes and testimonials can serve as powerful indicators of a successful program.

2. Get buy-in from leadership

The support of the CEO and senior leaders can go a long way toward making well-being programs succeed. At the Royal Bank of Scotland, the chief governance officer and board counsel serve as an executive sponsor for the bank’s integrated approach to employee well-being. The bank attributes much of the success of its initiatives to targeted messaging from senior leaders, including the CEO and board.

Some companies have found a champion in an executive who underwent a personal struggle and mustered up the courage to speak openly about it. Is a senior leader already a part of employee or business resource groups? Do executives speak openly about caring for a child with a mental illness? Progress on this front often comes from a company reacting to an incident, meaning yet another employee has suffered. To avoid having that happen, employers should take a proactive approach by securing help from the top of the house.

3. Don’t forget frontline management

While leadership can help spearhead a culture of well-being and openness, they represent just one slice of the equation. In fact, employees are most likely to disclose their physical and/or mental disabilities to their managers. However, just one in five line managers feel they have received adequate training for these sensitive conversations, according to one U.K. survey.

Some companies have taken steps to change that. At Unilever, managers receive training in mental first aid with a focus on prevention. The company believes employees should have access to mental first aid in a similar way that those trained in physical first aid provide support when needed. By late 2016, the company had trained half of all U.K. line managers as mental first aiders.

Here, HR needs to educate and then step back and delegate. Employers need to target middle management and those on the frontline for training opportunities. The way managers respond could encourage employees to seek treatment they need to stay healthy, lead to a certain accommodation that makes them more productive and create a more inclusive culture to increase the likelihood of others disclosing in the future. The benefits extend beyond the altruistic. After all, proper treatment can also go a long way toward decreasing workplace absences and improving employee productivity.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.