Human Resources Moves the Dial on Mental Health

I was honored this morning to participate on a panel presentation to the National Human Resources Association, Orange County, CA chapter.  The topic of discussion was HR’s role in improving mental health in the workplace.  Mental health is a complex and controversial subject.  The stigma surrounding the issue often interferes with our ability to develop solutions that benefit employees experiencing mental illness.

It was an encouraging sight to see so many fellow human resources professionals concerned and interested in how HR can contribute to improving mental health in our society.  I’ve always believed that good things happen when HR gets behind an issue.  In the past, HR contributed to issues of discrimination, sexual harassment, cracking the glass ceiling and providing employment to people with disabilities.  By bringing meaningful change to the workplace, HR is well placed to move the dial on mental health.

During my panel comments, I mentioned a few things HR professionals can do in the workplace to create a mentally healthy environment.

Calculate the Cost to the Business

Every HR professional should estimate the cost of poor employee mental health to the business in which they work.  One in five people will experience a mental disorder in any given year with more than 50% not receiving treatment.  Mental health is a major factor in employee absenteeism and it is the leading cause of disability worldwide.  It’s incumbent on HR to know the impact to their business.  When the CFO asks, “How can we improve business productivity?” – roll out the numbers!

Recruit an Executive Sponsor

This is easier than you think.  Executives aren’t exempt from the “one in five” prevalence statistic.  The executives of any business likely have experienced a mental illness personally or through family or friends – people they love.  Find an executive who has a passion for the issue.

Leverage the executive sponsor to lead a community event related to mental health.  Many companies already participate in March for Babies, Race for the Cure and/or the Aids Walk.  Participating in a similar event dedicated to improving mental health sends a message to employees that the company is open to the subject and supports the cause.  The Out of Darkness Walk to prevent suicide is an example of a mental health event.  Efforts such as this will reduce stigma.

Integrate Mental and Physical Health in Benefits

Businesses are legally required to provide parity between physical and mental health benefits.  What I often find is that a business will fail to promote mental health coverage during open enrollment and throughout the year.  Dental benefits are usually promoted more prominently than mental health benefits!  The result is that employees don’t know about the company’s mental health benefits and/or fear the repercussion of using benefits that aren’t promoted.

Wellness Programs should be equally focused to provide both physical and mental components.  Ensuring that a wellness program includes such things as mental health screenings, stress management, mindfulness meditation, yoga and/or financial counseling will enhance a current program.

Train, Train, Train

I probably should say, “re-train”.  When I entered the HR profession, I was taught not to address a suspected mental health issue with an employee.  Common wisdom of the time was to wait for the issue to become a performance problem and address the performance problem – and only the performance problem.  How unhelpful is that!

We now know that mental illness is treatable and recovery is possible.  It’s imperative, however, to refer employees experiencing a mental health issue to appropriate resources for assistance and treatment.

Training should be given to managers and HR staff to give them the ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, ways to respond and communicate with employees and sources to which employees can be referred.  Providing this type of training to HR and managers not only benefits the employee, but heads off potential absenteeism, disability and performance problems.

I love the wisdom of the Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”  During the month of May each year, Mental Health America leads the “May is Mental Health Month” campaign to raise awareness that mental health is something everyone should care about.  I encourage HR professionals everywhere to leverage the May is Mental Health Month campaign in their workplace – let’s start now!