From the Chamber: Removing the taboo from mental health at work

Two things before we get into the follow-up to last week’s column about mental health:

First, thank you to all of those who reached out with kind words about bringing the topic up; I thought it would resonate but I didn’t realize just how much.

Secondly, and this is so vital to remember, I’m not a mental health expert and all of the things I suggest are taken from journal articles, workplace newsletters, best practice studies I’ve read or people I’ve spoken with. I’m going to share ideas that connect with me, but to get a comprehensive plan for your staff or workplace, the better solution is to speak with a licensed medical professional who does this work. If you need suggestions, contact me at the chamber.

With that caveat in mind, I do want to highlight a few ideas that seem like they could fit with your staff. Some will have an expense but offset that with the expense of losing a key team member or, worse, continuing to demand the best from them without taking their health needs into consideration.

One piece to keep in mind is that we’re starting to see the beginning of the Talent Wars. With such a tight labor market, companies are fighting for the best talent — especially if you’re looking for younger talent. According to a Sept. 20 Axios report that highlighted a survey done of Millennials and Gen Z by a nonprofit group called Project Healthy Minds, 2 out of 3 people surveyed consider their mental health when choosing an employer. In that same survey, 60% said they want their employer to better prioritize mental health in the workplace, and 77% said they would leave a job if it’s negatively affecting their mental health. The business leaders who hear these numbers and embrace making changes to help their employees should see increased employee retention and, potentially, get a leg up in attracting new employees.

Another important caveat from that piece came from the founder and CEO of Project Healthy Minds Phillip Schermer, who said younger people aren’t necessarily more anxious and depressed than older ones — they’re just more comfortable seeking out help. That’s a key point; generationally, our older employees haven’t always been welcomed to share their thoughts on their mental health where younger generations have. That doesn’t mean the older employees don’t have the same mental health issues.

Here are just a few ideas to consider for businesses looking to tackle mental health in the workplace:

Active culture of acceptance

The first priority, right off the top, is from the top-down you need your leadership all recognizing this as a top priority and be active in making your corporate culture one in which employees feel safe bringing up these personal issues to you. Unlike physical health, mental health is very hard to pinpoint without the person saying what’s on their mind. There’s no single way in which stress, anxiety or depression present physically in a person — in fact, physical reactions can vary widely between people. The only way to know is to talk it out and to listen when employees bring up their mental health needs.

Lead by example

As a follow-up to the first point, one way to have an active culture of acceptance, may require the leadership to take the first steps. This could look like a staff meeting where the CEO tells the staff what’s been happening with them or why they took a mental health day and encouraging the staff to do so when they need it. This could also manifest by leaders telling their staff their headed to the counselor’s appointment rather than making up some excuse as to why they’re leaving to further remove the stigma associated with mental health checkups.

Cover therapy visits for staff

No explanation needed.

Mental health days

We’re all understaffed, so this is hard, but what’s harder is having a staff member struggling with mental health and trying to represent your business positively. Start to look at some mental health day policies and encourage people to take them — with pay, if you can. Sure, it’ll cost you for that lack of production, but if that helps your employee recharge, that loss of production for a day will come back fivefold when they’re in a better head space in the days that follow. You also may consider mandatory mental health days — what employee wouldn’t be happy to have a random paid Tuesday off to downshift or catch up on other personal projects in their life?

Support volunteerism and hobbies

Get to know your staff and what they like. If they’re into volunteering, offer to pay for a few hours per month of volunteer time for volunteering with that organization. If they have a hobby they enjoy, get them a gift card or equipment they need to enjoy that hobby as a special gift. Show them you’re invested in more than just what they produce for you.

Three-day weekends/four-day work weeks

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Every time we have a three-day weekend, I come back feeling more recharged and less stressed. Three-day weekends give you one day for family hangouts, one day for chores and one day to down shift. Imagine if we had that every week? This newest generation doesn’t live to work, they work to live. If your business can pull this off, you’ll likely have a more productive team.

Safe space/chill zone

Not all businesses can have a meditation room, but your workplace needs an area that employees can go for five to 15 minutes to decompress. It could be a room with a bean bag chair and snacks. Or (weather permitting) a staff-only hammock or picnic table. Or a massage chair. But just a space where when it all gets to be too much, an employee can just walk there and take a moment to calm the chaos.

Cory King is executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber of Commerce.

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