Mental Health in the Workplace – An Important Topic for HR in 2020

January 13, 2020

Last year the organizers of the 2019 Health and Benefits Leadership Conference reached out to me to see if I would be interested in participating at the event to talk about the continuing emergence of AI technology in the HR and Benefits space. I think I surprised them when I said I would love to be a part of the event (well, I don’t think my desire to participate was the surprising part), but that I also wanted to give a short talk about Mental Health in the Workplace. Mental Health and in particular, the issues around employee and workplace Mental Health have continued to rise in awareness and importance and in 2020 and forward, present a challenge and opportunity for HR and workplace leaders.

A couple of quick statistics on Mental Health that were really eye-opening and surprising to me that I discovered while researching the talk at the HBLC event:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder in their lifetime
  • Additionally, the CDC reports that more than 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year
  • Finally, common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are estimated to cost the global economy $1 Trillion per year in lost productivity

In response to these realities, the fact that more and more employees (and their family members) are at times struggling with mental health challenges, and the further reality that these problems have a significant business impact – increased rate of employee absence, lower productivity, increases in “hard” employee benefits costs, etc. more employers are taking actions to get in front of this issue, and have taken specific steps to try and address it. 

Some recent examples of higher profile employer-based programs to support better mental health of their workforces:

  • Starbucks recently announced they were adding employee access to Headspace, a popular app that helps users with guided meditation and mindfulness to its collection of employee mental health support benefits.
  • In October 2019 Ogilvy UK in partnership with the Time to Change mental health anti-stigma campaign released a chatbot based platform called Charlie3000 that helps people support family members and friends struggling with mental health and provides assistance, advice, and links to additional mental health resources available to employees
  • In November 2019, Apple announced a set of improvements and enhancements to its current employee benefits programs including doubling the number of free mental health counseling sessions provided to employees each year

These tangible and defined mental health benefits are welcome and important to employees at these organizations and to the employees of the many other organizations who have or will be implementing similar programs and policies to support better care for employee and family mental health. But there is another element of the overall employee mental health challenge that must not be overlooked – namely the work environments and cultural elements that can often contribute to (or even cause), employee mental health problems. 

Most importantly, cultural changes are crucial. HR and Benefits leaders have to emphasize the need to train managers to recognize signs that someone in the organization needs help, including lower production, difficulty meeting deadlines, increased absences, emotional outbursts and withdrawal. Managers and leaders will also need to be trained to know how best to approach these situations instead of ignoring them. Only a combination of increased attention and awareness, along with the availability of mental health resources and access to treatment can make an impact on this important issue. In 2020 I expect the emphasis on employee mental health and well being to continue to climb up the list of HR leader’s priorities, and hopefully support for employee mental health will become the expectation and norm in the workplace.

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