Ask HR: What Does It Mean to ‘Make Mental Health Mainstream’?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today

Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like him to answer? Submit it here.

As a manager, I am trying to understand the case leaders like yourself are making for companies’ role in combating mental health. I am concerned about how it will affect my organization and our bottom line. What do you mean when you say make “mental health mainstream”? Should employers become responsible for employees’ mental health? Should we hire people with mental health issues to be inclusive? Should we monitor employee behavior to be able to suggest company-provided mental health options to those current employees that display or profess mental health issues? –Randy

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I suspect plenty of business managers and leaders have the same or similar questions. This is an important topic for many, so thank you for asking. While every business leader must do what’s suitable for their organization, I hope you can understand my perspective.

When I say “make mental health mainstream,” I primarily mean two things:

  1. Reduce the negative stigma surrounding mental health.
  2. Regard mental health with the same priority as physical health.

Ignoring mental health does not make it better. Reducing the stigma means making it acceptable for people to experience mental health challenges and giving them the agency to seek care. In a workplace where mental health is embraced, workers are emboldened to manage stress better, prevent burnout and preserve mental well-being.

Past standards for mental health coverage often limited counseling visits and treatment options available to employees. How would this work if workers were allotted a limited number of chemotherapy treatments for cancer or a cap on the number of hours of surgery to repair a spinal injury? This simply does not make sense. Diagnosis and treatment limits don’t make sense for physical or mental health. Limiting counseling sessions falls woefully short of providing actual mental health solutions. Comprehensive health care should ultimately put mental health care on par with physical health care.

Indeed, every individual should be responsible and advocate for their own health and wellness. As employers, we also recognize how the workforce’s well-being can impact work performance and productivity. We need healthy workers to maximize human potential and drive business success. We should invest in supporting people’s ability to preserve, protect and enhance their mental well-being.

An employer’s role in addressing employees’ mental health in the workplace has become increasingly important. Finding, communicating and providing access to the benefits and support that reflect the needs of your employees is key.

All people have a physical body and mind. They can experience challenges in both. In the past, we’ve sacrificed mental well-being in pursuit of business success. “Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of 1 trillion U.S. dollars per year in lost productivity,” according to a World Health Organization-led study. Conversely, “every $1 invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and ability to work.”

I would posit that we already hire people with mental health issues. Nearly 1 in 4 workers express feeling down, depressed or hopeless—not sometimes, but often. More than 4 in 10 employees say they feel burned out, drained or exhausted from work. And these figures may be low. People are reluctant to be transparent because of the stigma still attached to mental health. Just as we hire people with a range of physical health issues, we also hire people with varying degrees of mental wellness. We should be prepared and willing to provide support as they face health challenges.

People managers are uniquely positioned to observe and evaluate worker performance. Without prying or diagnosing, managers can still help workers identify signs of potential stress and burnout. They can also direct employees to available diagnosis, support and treatment options should they divulge any mental health challenges.

Ultimately, prioritizing mental health in the workplace is advantageous, not a hindrance to businesses. It’s not just the good thing to do for workers; it’s the smart thing to do for businesses. I encourage you to find out what level of support you can lend your employees.

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