Opinion 

Keeping the wolf from the door

Michelle Jackson

Michelle Jackson

Mental health. It's a tough subject for businesses to handle and one that your client's employees don’t always want to talk about.

Whether we like it or not, mental illness has its cold, firm grip on one in five US adults and it’s also likely to have a direct impact on your clients' businesses, and their bottom line. 

The issue isn’t that mental health issues aren’t recognised but they’re still not part of mainstream workplace conversations. It’s the ghostly arm that pushes and prods and tries to get your attention – but sometimes you just don’t want to admit it’s there.  

We need to expand the definition of workplace wellbeing to include mental health alongside physical health. Flexible work schedules, giving workers latitude in decision-making and setting reasonable health goals can all be combined to establish a more permanent, healthy workplace environment.

The question is how can we do this in a way that’s both sensitive and effective? 

Research suggests both employers and employees aren’t giving employee assistance programmes (EAPs) much attention. A Chestnut Global Partners’ Trends Report showed the cumulative EAP usage rate in 2015 was only 5.5 per cent, suggesting both employers and employees have placed their attention elsewhere. 

EAPs are intended to help employees deal with personal problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health and well-being. They provide direct, confidential access to professionals who can assist with areas of concern causing distress, from work related issues to family problems and mental illness.

Introducing EAPS can not only help reduce absenteeism and health costs, but also show mental health support is a priority within your business. You’re openly acknowledging such problems exist and you value your employees, not just when they’re excelling in the workplace, but when they’re struggling too.

Having an EAP and not communicating it to staff is as ineffective as not having one. As well as making it part of the onboarding process for new hires, be sure to remind your staff about it regularly – on noticeboards, via your intranet, through email – to keep it front of mind. 

We need to try to find ways to incorporate mental health into company conversations. That’s not to say it’s appropriate to make it the topic of conversation at the water-cooler – your employees may not be comfortable discussing their mental health with a manager - or even family members.

Instead, consider having at least one HR professional who is trained in intervention coaching and has open office hours for discussing these matters in private. Make sure access to help and the necessary information about this is openly available – whether that’s through your internal e-newsletter or a portal on your company website.

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