Mental health is a critical issue in the workplace. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, one in five American adults experiences a mental illness in any given year. And yet, many employers still don’t have comprehensive mental health programs. Why is this the case, and what can be done about it? In this edition, we’ll explore why more than just EAPs are needed to address mental health in the workplace, and we’ll suggest some ways that employers can create a more holistic approach to employee well-being.
Here’s the scenario. An employee approaches their manager to discuss their mental health struggles. Seeing where the conversation is going, the manager quickly dismisses the conversation and advises them to go to Human Resources or EAP, also known as Employee Assistance Programs. It took a lot to get the confidence to have this conversation, but the lack of engagement by the manager left the employee feeling humiliated, embarrassed, and unheard. Although they called EAP, they were still left with unaddressed concerns that only their manager could help them resolve. This is a common occurrence in workplaces across America.
EAPs are helpful, but they are not the be-all and end-all when addressing mental health in the workplace. EAPs are useful for connecting employees with mental health providers. However, the number of free visits that you are allocated is limited. In my experience with using EAP, I was able to have three valuable conversations with a mental health provider and then was left on my own accord to find a new one when my allocation of visits expired. In this current environment, finding a mental health provider can be challenging. The few providers who took my insurance had a long waitlist, and those that didn’t accept my insurance charged hundreds of dollars an hour for their services. In the end, I was left feeling lost and hopeless, and my employer had no other resources to offer. At that moment, EAP stood for Empty A$$ Promises. My employer assumed that I would get all of the help I needed through this program and had nothing left to offer, including sitting down and discussing my mental health concerns.
The truth is that most managers don’t feel comfortable talking to their employees about their mental health, and there needs to be a shift in the culture around these conversations. Managers need to be trained on how to have these conversations, and they need to know how to be empathetic, supportive, and non-retaliatory when doing so. Additionally, employer policies and programs should provide more than just EAP services; they should also focus on preventing and promoting employee well-being. Employers can offer wellness programs, flexible work arrangements, and peer support groups. Additionally, employers should evaluate their culture for behaviors that may be triggering mental health issues within their workforce. This last point is why it is crucial that managers not shy away from conversations about mental health.
Here is some guidance for being an empathetic, supportive leader when an employee approaches you with mental health concerns.
When an employee approaches you about their mental health:
✅ Acknowledge their courage in approaching you.
✅ Thank them for trusting you with this information.
✅ Reassure them that they are not alone and that mental health concerns should be discussed openly.
✅ Let them know that you are there to support them and work with them to find resources (that include more than EAP) that can help.
✅ Finally, follow up with the employee after they have accessed resources to see how they are doing and if there is anything else you can do to support them.
Creating a supportive environment around mental health in the workplace starts with open and honest communication between employees and managers. By shifting the culture around these conversations, we can begin to destigmatize mental health and create a more supportive and holistic workplace for all.
What other steps do you think employers should take to address mental health in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below!
Natasha Bowman is the President of Performance ReNEW, TedX speaker, and author of You Can’t Do That at Work! (2017) and The Power of One: Leading with Civility, Candor, and Courage (2022).
Natasha still has a few slots available for Mental Health Awareness Month. Hear her powerful story about how her suicide attempt, hospitalization, and bipolar disorder have led her to her journey of creating cultures of wellness in the workplace.