5 Ways to Create a Culture That Supports Employee Mental Health

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When we at CHG Healthcare started focusing on company culture and employee engagement 15 years ago, we got a lot of strange looks. Investors wondered why we spent so much time and energy on our people, and other HR professionals asked us why we would prioritize cultural fit over skill set when we brought on new employees.

These days, however, most employers get it. They understand the important role company culture plays in employee happiness and productivity. They also see that a strong culture results in lower rates of burnout and higher rates of engagement, which in turn helps a company attract and retain top talent.

Though employers have come a long way on company culture, there’s one area that still needs more attention: mental health.

By some estimates, mental illness costs businesses between $79 billion and $105 billion every year, due in part to low productivity and absenteeism. More than 40 million Americans live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s almost one in five adults — which means it’s more than likely at least one of your employees is dealing with this issue.

When companies focus on destigmatizing mental illness and supporting employee mental health, they create workplaces where people feel comfortable being themselves and safe in addressing their concerns with leadership.

Here are a few ways to build an organizational culture that promotes mental health:

1. Make Time for Listening

Listening is a critical skill for any leader to have. In the workplace, it typically takes two forms: manager-to-employee listening and corporation-to-employee listening. Done correctly, both forms of listening build trust, which leads to happier and more engaged employees.

Manager-to-employee listening typically manifests as one-on-one meetings with managers. These meetings give employees a venue to report on their areas of responsibility and discuss any concerns they may have. Leaders should encourage employees to lead the discussions, and they should work to create environments where employees feel comfortable raising any topic they want.

Corporation-to-employee listening is more structured, and it generally takes the form of anonymous surveys and other official feedback channels. Some employees won’t feel as comfortable raising concerns with their managers directly, so these corporate channels can offer them a safe way to make suggestions, air frustrations, and provide feedback. In order for employees to truly feel heard — and for their concerns to be addressed — leaders must actually create and carry out action plans based on employee feedback.

2. Give Employees Ways to De-Stress

Stress is an inevitable part of any job, and leaders can help alleviate it by providing opportunities for team members to relax. Many companies create spaces where employees can decompress, like game rooms, gyms, and walking paths. Structured activities like meditation sessions and fitness classes can also help relieve employee stress. Some leaders may view such activities as “wasted time,” but the fact is employees are more productive overall when they have regular opportunities to blow off steam.

A well-designed volunteer program is another option. Give workers a certain number of PTO days specifically for volunteering. This type of service has been shown to benefit the brain in multiple ways, including reducing stress. For the program to be most effective, leaders need to not only allow but actively encourage employees to take time off to volunteer.

3. Be Transparent With Employees

People with mental health issues can face many obstacles to treatment, none more frustrating than the broad cultural stigma. Deep misunderstandings about mental health persist. Although ongoing efforts to correct widely held misconceptions have made some progress, many damaging myths still abound.

A company dedicated to supporting employee mental health must foster an open, transparent environment. Corporate communication should be direct and honest — even when the business is facing tough times. Giving employees insight into company operations will make them feel valued and trusted. More importantly, it signals that feedback is both welcome and encouraged, and that leaders are always open to frank discussions about difficult topics such as mental health needs.

4. Establish Quiet Spaces

Tight deadlines and heavy workloads are leading causes of workplace stress. When employees face these burdens, they need a way to escape from the hustle and bustle of the office so they can focus on their duties.

In the era of open workspaces, it’s important to give employees opportunities to step away from their desks and find some quiet. Provide designated quiet rooms, outdoor spaces, or coffee bars as resources allow. Unused offices or meeting rooms should be fair game for employees in need of peace, and leaders can even consider providing headphones to help employees focus.

5. Offer Benefits That Support Mental Health

Perhaps the single most important way companies can support mental health is by formally covering mental health treatment in their benefit plans. Companies should also take steps to make care as accessible as possible. For example, we have an on-site health clinic — which includes mental health services — that is available to employees and their families at no cost.

Beyond formal benefits packages, there are additional perks companies can offer to support wellness. For example, flexible work arrangements that allow people to work from home or adjust their schedules as needed can reduce stress and promote work/life balance.

Mental Health Benefits the Bottom Line

From a strict bottom-line view, companies that support mental health and build amazing company cultures benefit in two primary ways.

First, they attract and retain star talent. Top employees can work nearly anywhere they wish, and they will nearly always choose places with supportive, transparent work environments.

The second benefit is simple, but powerful: Employees will be happier and healthier. Happier employees are more productive, and healthier employees will lower your organization’s health care costs overall.

Focusing on people can have a dramatic financial benefit. Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent must create cultures that support and prioritize people — including their mental health needs.

Kevin Ricklefs is senior vice president of talent management at CHG Healthcare.

By Kevin Ricklefs