Now, more than ever, mental health is at the forefront of our lives. It’s more prevalent. It’s more frequent. It’s more painful, and it’s even more in need of addressing.
When COVID-19 hit, everything about the way we exist changed, and mental health couldn’t be ignored. The pandemic itself has brought about more mental illness and worsened conditions for those who were already suffering. And these mental health struggles don’t stop when we get to work. It’s likely that they’re amplified, especially during times of stress or uncertainty – things we’re chock full of during this pandemic.
MENTAL HEALTH AT WORK – WHAT ARE EMPLOYERS DOING?
The short answer? Not enough.
For too long and for too many, it has been all about performance. We expect performance. But, those suffering from a mental illness might see changes in performance. If people struggle to thrive and perform in their everyday life, how can they thrive and perform at work? Poor performance impacts an organization’s ability to manage a thriving workforce, and deliver consistent performance, results, and customer satisfaction. AKA – it hits your bottom line, but more importantly, employers have a moral responsibility to support and empower the whole person.
In a recent digital meetup, we spoke with Natasha Bowman, founder of Performance Renew, a leadership development and talent management consulting firm in New York. City. A labor and employment law attorney by trade, Natasha decided early in her career that she didn’t want to be on the “dark side of misconduct.” She worked in HR for several organizations before founding her own firm. Part of her motivation comes from her lived-in, real-world experience with mental illness and high performance that came with a cost.
In March of 2020, Natasha felt she was at the height of her career. She’d written a bestseller, she’d done a Ted Talk and she was traveling internationally to collect awards and speak at national conventions. What could go wrong? Well, COVID-19 shut down the world. Natasha found herself without work, without events to attend and without projects.
“I went into a mental health crisis and over the months went deeper and deeper into a hole,” Natasha explained. “In early 2021, I attempted to take my life and spent several days in a mental health institution. During that stay, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”
This diagnosis brought about many realizations in her personal and professional life. In Natasha’s case, the manic part of her bipolar disorder meant she over-performed in her career, high-performing in overdrive for days on end and with little sleep, but at what cost? Before her diagnosis, Natasha didn’t pay much attention to mental health. But when she found that insight into herself, she made it her mission to create cultures of mental wellness at work.
Watch the full Digital Meetup here
So how do we create these cultures? It starts with tapping into what employees really need. Mental Health expert and proponent, Lyra Health, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 full-time employees and 250 employee benefit leaders across the United States to gain trends and predictions for mental health in 2022. Their forecast is also informed by Lyra’s Workforce Mental Health team, which works with employers to provide mental health-related learning and development programs. So what did they find? First and foremost, mental health challenges are increasing and employees want their employers to step up.
84% of employees desire mental health benefits
59% of employees would stay in a job if it had robust mental health benefits
WHERE CAN EMPLOYERS START?
Employees’ desire for strong mental health support is not completely lost on HR. In the Lyra Health survey, 92% of HR professionals said providing mental health support became a higher priority for their company over the past year, with 93% predicting it will remain a high priority in 2022.
Now that they’re prioritizing it, how can they put that into motion? Instead of a reactive approach, Natasha recommends, at a minimum, creating workplaces that don’t contribute to poor mental health. What do mentally healthy workplaces look like? What organizations currently offer isn’t enough EAP programs leave us short, and they’re underutilized to boot. They have to do more.
LOOK BEYOND EAP
“[When most people] go to their managers and say, I’m struggling with my mental health, they get one response. That one response is to go to EAP. You get your three counseling sessions done, and then you’re out there on your own to find your own resources.”
Employees are left to figure out what their insurance covers, which doctors they can see (and afford), all while waiting and waiting to get care that they desperately need, now. It’s a contract between the employer and the EAP company, but there is no circling back or follow-up on how much the program was utilized or if it even helped. That’s simply not going to cut it. Natasha is working with EAP companies to extend their offering, give data back to employers and create a full circle moment for employees.
KNOW THE SIGNS
“You may have rock stars that are at their rock bottom,” Natasha said.
The hard part is knowing what to look for when someone is struggling and how to approach it.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), worries about a task or project, a feeling of being misunderstood by coworkers or supervisors, the effects of perceived or real discrimination, or feeling bullied or lonely at work are strong predictors of a mental health crisis.
So, how do you start that conversation? While we need to talk about it, mental health is also quite delicate and requires a thought-out dialogue. According to Natasha, we should be encouraging managers to say, “I’ve noticed a change in you, are you okay?” and not trying to diagnose anyone. The employee can decide if they want to share or not. If they don’t, their leaders should still be empowered to share resources.
REMOVE THE STIGMA
When employees share a mental health diagnosis, employers need to stop immediately thinking about how it will affect their work and instead find ways to support them. Remove the stigma associated with mental illness, open your hearts and engage in those uncomfortable conversations.
“Stigma is the first thing to be addressed,” Natasha said. “It’s about de-stigmatizing that you can still be a functional human being. You likely are still a functional human being and high-performing. You still have it doesn’t diminish your value. It doesn’t need to diminish your contributions. You just, just like any other health, physical health need, emotional health need, you need treatment, you need a proper recovery that requires resources and support.”
Organizations must adopt flexible work policies that benefit mental health. It should come as no surprise that after health, dental, and vision benefits, the second-most important benefit for employees today is flexible work policies such as remote work and work-from-home days.
Burnout also is top of mind for both employers and employees, and no surprise. 32% of employees in Lyra’s survey said they’d experienced burnout over the last year. There also seems to be growing recognition among employers that burnout is a structural problem more than an individual one. Employers must shift toward building workplace structures that prevent burnout.
If you notice employees are overworked or haven’t taken a personal/mental health day in a while, encourage them to do so! And don’t fear the abuse of benefits.
“If you have a great culture, employees will care about your company and they would never put the company in a compromising position by abusing something that the company is giving. So if you have a great company culture and people are loyal and committed to you and to their teammates, you’re not gonna see the abuse. In fact, you’ll see the appreciation.
OPEN UP THE DIALOGUE
Other key trends Lyra Health predicts for 2022 are more mental health literacy and education to drive awareness and acceptance. There is growing interest to provide mental health-related training to employees.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It all starts with educating yourself, being aware and operating with empathy. And it’s ok for employers to need help when it comes to having these conversations. There are resources available to guide them through mental health. Performance Renew has training programs that explain mental illness and how it can show up in the workplace and how to support it once you’re aware.
“Sometimes we wait for our organizational leaders. We wait for policy changes, and laws, for change to happen. Let’s not do that. We have the opportunity to make the change ourselves, our, what I call power of one, right. To make a change and not wait, use our own power. Collectively I’m hoping as a community, we can work to solve this mental health crisis in the workplace.
This is the right thing to do. We’re all human. And we deserve to be happy.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jess Von Bank is an 18-year industry veteran and impassioned evangelist of the modern candidate and employee experience. As both a former recruiting practitioner and an expert in bringing TA Tech and HCM vendor solutions to market, Jess looks to broaden executive mindset to better design and deliver a workforce experience that exceeds the expectations of talent and the needs of the business.
Jess offers specialized expertise in talent acquisition, recruitment marketing, employer branding, DEI&B, brand-building, and storytelling. She is the Head of Marketing for Leapgen, a digital transformation company shaping the Now of Work. She also runs the Now of Work, Leapgen’s global community for HR, Talent, and workforce experience professionals.
Jess is an active community emcee, ambassador for women’s and girls’ organizations, and President of Diverse Daisies, a nonprofit for girls’ enrichment and empowerment. She lives in Minneapolis, where she races for free swag and raises her 3 daughters.
Leapgen is a global digital transformation company shaping the NOW of work. Highly respected as a visionary partner to organizations looking to design and deliver a digital workforce experience that will produce valued outcomes to the business, Leapgen helps enterprise leaders rethink how to better design and deliver workforce services and architect HR technology solutions that meet the expectations of workers and the needs of the business.