Ignoring mental health in your workplace can affect productivity and the bottom line
On November 1st, the National Organization on Disability held our Corporate Leadership Council Fall Luncheon and Roundtable. Hosted at Sony’s New York offices, the event centered on the topic of mental health in the workplace.
Members of our Board of Directors and executives from nearly 40 companies held a candid conversation, heard from business leaders, and participated in an insightful Q&A where successful strategies were discussed to accommodate and support employees with mental illness in the workplace.
“Mental illness is the single biggest cause of disability worldwide,” said Craig Kramer, a panelist at the event and Chair of Johnson & Johnson’s Global Campaign on Mental Health. “One out of four people will have a clinically diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives,” he continued. Another 20 to 25% of the population will be caregivers to loved ones with a mental illness.
The costs are staggering. “In the coming decades, mental illness will account for more than half of the economic burden of all chronic diseases, more than cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases combined…. It’s trillions of dollars,” said Kramer.
From an employer’s perspective, the need for a successful strategy to deal with mental illness in the workplace is clear. But what are the most effective ways to confront this challenge? Roundtable participants discussed a wide range of ideas and success stories aimed at de-stigmatizing mental health and incorporating the issue into wider conversations around talent, productivity, and inclusion.
6 Key Takeaways on Mental Health in the Workplace:
- Be empathetic. “The most important workplace practice [with respect to mental health] is empathy,” said NOD President Carol Glazer. Empathy is critical for normalizing conversations about mental health, but also for maximizing productivity. “A feeling of psychological safety is important,” said Lori Golden, a panelist and Abilities Strategy Leader for Ernst & Young; and this sense of safety requires the empathy of colleagues to flourish.
- Tell stories. “Nothing is more activating of empathy than for people to share their powerful stories,” said Dr. Ronald Copeland, NOD Board member and Senior Vice President of National Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Policy and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Kaiser Permanente. Copeland’s organization partners with the renowned nonprofit, Story Corps, to capture the stories of Kaiser Permanente employees, and also provides a platform on the company intranet for employees to communicate in a safe space. Both Craig Kramer and Lori Golden also shared examples of how their companies provide opportunities to share their stories and “start the conversation, break the silence,” as Kramer put it.
- Model from the top. Carol Glazer received a standing ovation at the luncheon for her account of her own experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This type of executive-level modeling sends a powerful message that a company is committed to improving mental health for all employees. Lori Golden shared how EY had experienced great success with a program where top-level managers host office-specific events and share stories of mental illness or addiction that they are personally connected to – either about their colleagues or loved ones or, in a surprisingly high number of instances, about themselves. Senior leadership setting the example conveys that this is a forum in which employees can feel comfortable sharing.
- Communicate peer-to-peer. “We all know that there’s greater trust of our own peers than there is of the organization,” said Lori Golden. So to build trust, EY “took it to the grass roots,” creating formal opportunities for employees to have conversations about mental health and asking other ERGs to co-sponsor these events. Craig Kramer also noted that Johnson & Johnson had simply folded mental health issues into their global disability ERGs, eventually building the world’s second-largest mental health ERG by piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and leveraging existing connections.
- Be flexible. Accommodating [the fact that people live busy, complex lives] gets you better buy-in…and keeps production pretty high,” suggested Dr. Copeland. A representative from one Council company concurred, explaining how their company has recently instituted a new policy of paid time off for caregivers on top of federally-funded leave. “Being in a culture in which we measure what you produce and not whether you show up in person all day, every day, and where if you can’t be there, you negotiate how the deliverables will get done and in what time frame…is immensely helpful to people who themselves have mental illness issues or addiction or are caring for those who do and may need some flexibility,” summarized Lori Golden.
- Build a trustworthy Employee Action Plan. Many employees do not access or even trust their organization’s internal resources. According to Craig Kramer, the percentage of calls placed to most company Employee Action Plans (EAPs) regarding mental health is “in the low single digits,” while “if you look at your drug spend, you’ll find that around 50% is [related to] mental health.” The people answering those calls must be trained in mental health issues, and employees also need to be assured that EAPs are truly confidential.
While revealing and accommodating mental illness remains a massive challenge in the workplace and beyond, a number of successful strategies are emerging for tackling this challenge – many of them pioneered by companies in NOD’s Corporate Leadership Council.
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