How to Support Employees' Mental Health as You Return to the Office

This type of support must come from the very top of your company.

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By John Boitnott

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Mental illness and wellness issues were already gaining traction as the rate of diagnoses increased in recent years, then the current health crisis came along and created even more obstacles to mental health. Now, as businesses start to open back up across the country, it's imperative that companies champion the mental health of their employees and leaders every bit as much as they support their physical wellbeing.

One of the best ways for entrepreneurs and startup founders to ensure this happens is to lead the charge themselves. Here's how to support mental health for every member of your team by modeling good self-care practices and exhibiting true leadership on a topic that still makes some people uncomfortable.

Related: How Remote Education Is Evolving During the Crisis

Recognize the cost of doing nothing

Although mental illness may not be as visible as some physical wounds, that doesn't mean it's strictly a personal burden to bear. Certainly, any business leader or executive who is struggling with mental health issues must cope with much of the fallout. It may involve chronic pain, anxiety, sleeplessness, damage to personal relationships, lack of appetite or interest in self-care. But, the costs of suffering in silence go far beyond the individual.

In fact, a 2019 WHO study estimated that depression and anxiety cost the world's economy about $1 trillion (USD) each year in lost productivity. Additionally, absenteeism, difficulty completing tasks, lost hours through additional required supervision or assistance and more can all add to the toll.

Millions of Americans are impacted by mental illness every year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost 20 percent of U.S. adults experience a diagnosable mental illness every year. For four percent of all U.S. adults, that mental illness is a serious one. These figures are only being exacerbated by the current crisis and the various sheltering-in-place orders that kept many Americans at home for weeks on end. Many U.S. doctors and therapists began sounding the alarm in May that the crisis was causing an explosion in mental health issues.

This means that someone in your organization most likely is or will be struggling with mental health. If no one in your company is addressing this issue seriously and compassionately, imagine how alone those employees must feel. And then imagine what good you can do when you greet them on their return to work not with silence, but with compassion, acceptance and valuable resources that actually help.

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Take an inventory

What challenges is your workplace facing when it comes to achieving and maintaining good mental health for your workforce and leadership?

Inadequate safety policies, poor leadership and communication, micromanagement, lack of respect for employee autonomy, inflexible working conditions and hours and management abuse of subordinates can all inflict real damage on your team members.

Put sincere effort into surveying your employees at all levels to pinpoint areas where your workplace needs to improve. Make survey responses anonymous to ensure honest feedback. If you need assistance getting this done, consider outsourcing creation and administration of the survey. Removing the company's leadership from the process may also help reassure workers that their responses will be kept confidential and won't lead to any backlash.

Then you can begin to address and reduce those risk factors with a thoughtful strategy. Always place people first, above cost-trimming measures. That way your people will be available to help your company grow its revenue and profits.

Implement pro-mental health policies

The key to helping returning employees regain and maintain good mental health following the crisis is to give them the support they need without penalizing them. All too often, businesses may offer counseling and other mental health benefits but then make it difficult for workers to actually exercise those benefits.

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If an employee is going to be penalized for missing work in order to attend weekly counseling sessions that can only be held during business hours, then that worker is not likely to continue prioritizing their mental health by attending those sessions. Make sure your benefits don't simply look good "on paper." Ensure your team can practically make use of the resources and support you offer.

Finally, train management and leaders to spot serious mental health problems and help employees get the help they need without shaming them. Leadership on this issue starts at the top and filters down. When you model a healthy attitude towards mental wellbeing for your company, that attitude will filter down to middle management, supervisors and the entire workforce. Let it be known that company policy now treats the mental health of all employees as a vital asset that must be treated with respect.

Tell your own story

When former NYPD cop Eric Adams began struggling with the mental health impact of his work on the police force, he began to practice meditation as part of a comprehensive self-care and mental health management program. Now Brooklyn borough president, he is finding purpose and balance in the process of telling his own mental health story.

Ben Huh, the CEO and founder of Cheezburger, wrote an article about his own struggle with suicidal thoughts after a failed startup experience. Sean Percival, a co-founder of children's clothing company Wittlebee, also wrote openly about how the 2013 suicide of a colleague and fellow startup founder impacted his own mental health and encouraged other struggling entrepreneurs to speak up and ask for help.

These entrepreneurs and many others have taken a bold step in helping to eliminate the unwarranted stigma surrounding mental health and wellness in business and in public life. Taking control of your own story by telling it yourself to others in a constructive and safe environment not only helps you heal, but it also helps others who might be needlessly suffering in silence.

Related: 4 Ways to Determine If Now Is the Right Time to Launch Your Business

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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