Eight Ways Your Leaders Can Get Started

"Can Employers Move the Needle on America’s Mental Health? "In this article, Graeme Cowan points out why America’s employers are in a prime position to make a difference in our country’s collective mental health, and shares eight strategies to help leaders get started.

Did you know that one in five Americans takes at least one psychiatric medication, such as an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug. It’s obvious that something about our modern lifestyles needs to change. And Graeme Cowan has a clear—and perhaps surprising—idea of where that change should start: the workplace.

“Since we spend a significant chunk of our waking hours at work, employers are in a prime position to make a difference in America’s collective mental health,” says Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder. “Because of the large role they play in employees’ lives, employers can be a first line of defense in keeping mental health issues from taking root, and can also play a pivotal role in helping individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety cope and recover.”

Cowan isn’t placing the blame on employers for the current epidemic of mental health issues, but simply pointing out that illnesses like depression and anxiety are often exacerbated by environments that are stressful, demanding, and hectic (e.g., most workplaces).

“Many employers can’t change the pace or workloads required of their employees, but they can cultivate a culture that fosters engagement and wellness. They can also take steps to reduce the unfortunate stigma around mental health issues, encourage employees to seek help, and actively support those who do. And while I hope that all business leaders genuinely care for the well-being of their people, the fact is that committing to these changes won’t be a purely philanthropic endeavor, either—employers’ bottom lines stand to benefit a great deal from improving their teams’ mental health.”

In fact, a study recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that depressed workers experienced more health-related productivity losses than those without depression—costing employers $44 billion. And despite the fact that depression and stress disorders are such a significant source of lost productivity, Cowan’s research shows that 86 percent of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than speak up to their bosses.

Clearly, when employers step up and create a mentally healthy work culture, everyone wins.

Here, Cowan shares eight tips to help employers create programs that foster a mentally healthy and high-performing culture:

Link your efforts to purpose and values. First and foremost, employers need to understand that creating a culture of mental well-being isn’t something that can be changed simply by instituting new rules and policies. Employees’ well-being—particularly their mental health—is a very personal thing. And most people won’t be willing to speak up about their needs, preferences, struggles, and experiences unless they feel that your efforts are more than just another initiative handed down from the folks in the corner offices.

“People are motivated and energized when they really believe that the changes being made will make a positive difference—not just to your company’s bottom line, but also to them as individuals. For example, Suncorp, an insurance company I work for, has identified ‘Creating brighter futures’ as their overarching purpose. It is easy to see the link between this goal, Suncorp’s future, and its employees’ well-being.”

Make sure leaders set the example. A recent Harvard global study of 19,000 employees showed that only 25 percent believed that their leader lived a balanced and sustainable lifestyle. The one in four employees who did believe that their leader lived a balanced and healthy life were shown to be 52 percent more engaged, and had a 72 percent higher well-being.

“The point? The most practical thing leaders can do to create a mentally healthy work culture is to lead healthy lives themselves. For instance, if you encourage employees to leave work at work so that they can devote time to family, friends, hobbies, exercise, etc., you need to do the same. If your people see you sending frantic emails at 10 p.m., they’ll assume they should be connected after hours, too—and their stress levels will remain at unhealthy levels.”

Don’t expect change to happen overnight—create a multi-year plan. Culture doesn’t change overnight, especially given the stigma associated with mental health conditions. When you consider that almost 9 out of 10 of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than share their condition with work colleagues, it becomes clear that a long-term plan is essential.

Identify mental health champions. A mental health champion is someone who is familiar with the organization’s plan and goals, and who is willing to visibly lead change. While it’s important to designate champions at different levels throughout the organization, some should be leaders who have the power to shape organizational policy. And if possible, some should also be individuals who have coped with stress and anxiety, and who are willing to share their stories. Seeing that speaking up about mental health issues isn’t met with stigma or disapproval will be instrumental in ensuring long-term cultural change.

Create a variety of programs and resources. Mental health is not one-size-fits-all. There should be programs and resources to help employees to stay in the “green zone,” as well as strategies to help those who have slipped into the “red zone.”

“Because of the high level of stigma that still exists, it is essential that programs can be accessed anonymously, as well as in more traditional training settings.” Also, be sure to identify processes and procedures within the organization that might be causing unnecessary stress, and change them.” 

Target high-risk employees. Many organizations have observed that mental stress is highest where engagement levels are lowest. Central to improving health outcomes will be identifying the specific areas where employees are disengaged. There will undoubtedly be performance issues in these areas.

Another key step in identifying high-risk employees is knowing what signs indicate they may be suffering from depression or anxiety. If a normally reliable employee starts calling in sick more than usual, missing deadlines or meetings, looks tired or overwhelmed, or has a decrease in overall performance, he or she could be suffering from a mental health issue.

Teach managers and team members how to ask, “Are you okay?” Fifty-one percent of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress is “speaking to someone at work.” “This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ and encourage the stressed employee to take action,” says Cowan. “I recommend a four-step process to building trust and helping someone you are concerned about. First, break the ice. The best ice breaker? Simply ask, ‘Are you okay?’ Next, listen without judgment. Then, encourage action. And finally, follow up.

“Many managers are paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing and opt for saying nothing instead. I guarantee that if you approach the conversation with a genuine effort to ‘put yourself in their shoes,’ your intent will be felt and appreciated. Compassion or emotional support plays an essential role in recovering from depression. Employees say that when a supervisor or coworker shows they care about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity.”

Monitor progress and share success stories. It’s simple: What gets measured gets managed. That’s why your organization no doubt monitors absenteeism, employee turnover, and profitability—they are essential to success.

“Surveys that identify employee engagement and stress levels should be added to this dashboard,” says Cowan. “And leaders should be very conscious of sharing mental health success stories—with the permission of the employee in question, of course.”

“Yes, transforming your company’s culture can seem like a daunting task, but if you want to continue to succeed in a rapidly changing world, it is not optional,” Cowan concludes. “Just take this process one step at a time, making sure that rewards, processes, policies, and guidelines all reflect your commitment to improved mental health. The ROI your organization receives—in employee engagement, loyalty, and productivity—will be worth it.”

Graeme Cowan is the author of Back from the Brink : True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder. He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance. Despite spending most of his career as a senior executive in Sydney, Australia, with organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and A.T. Kearney, Graeme had struggled with depression for more than 20 years. Graeme reemerged with not just a best-selling Australian book series to his name but a new attitude toward the way individuals approach recovery.