Investing in Employee Mental Health can Pay Dividends

May was Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to bring awareness to and reduce the stigma of mental health issues.  Recently, PwC announced that it would be embracing the movement and investing $2.4 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “b”), into programs meant to improve employee mental health and wellness.  These new wellness driven policies provide employees with options to establish work schedules and locations that are most conducive to the employee’s present circumstances.  In addition, the company will shut down for two weeks in both July and December to encourage time away from work, provide expanded parental leave, give mid-fiscal-year salary increases to all employees, and offer professional development opportunities.

Research shows that when employees are struggling, a company’s bottom line can also suffer.  For example, a study published by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental health found that employee depression, which can lead to increased absenteeism and lost productivity, costs the U.S. economy more than $210 billion each year (there’s that “b” for billion again).  Not only is it the right thing to do to take steps to improve employee wellness, but the investments can lead to increased productivity and output, and thus higher profits.

While most companies cannot invest billions of dollars into employee wellness programs like PwC, there are many low-cost measures companies can take to improve mental health and wellness, such as the examples below.

Train Managers to Spot the Signs of a Struggling Employee: Front-line managers should have a basic understanding of the warning signs that an employee may be struggling with their mental health.  For example, perhaps a once-stellar employee is now struggling to complete projects on time or turns in work riddled with errors.  Another employee may have had a great attendance record, but suddenly is absent or tardy from work often.  These issues could stem from depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, rather than just sudden poor performance.  Managers should also know that certain employees may be at higher risk of suffering from work-related stressors.  Common examples of workplace triggers include employees who work alone, in high-risk positions, or have intense workloads.  If a manager senses an employee is struggling, the manager should understand how to broach the subject with the employee, what to say, and just as importantly, what not to say.

Understand How to Properly Handle Employee Reporting of Mental Health Issues: If an employee discloses that they are struggling with their mental health, employers should understand their potential legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and corresponding state laws.  Employees may be entitled to reasonable accommodations such as additional break time, modifications to work schedules, or unpaid leave.  It may also be appropriate for the employer to offer resources to the employee.  For example, if the company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), the employer can refer the employee to the EAP, who can then connect the employee with the necessary resources.  Often employees either forget about their EAP options or are hesitant to reach out believing their situation is not serious enough and need some encouragement.

Conduct High-Quality Check-Ins to Build Connections: The COVID-19 pandemic left many people feeling isolated from family, friends, and colleagues, which can have a corresponding negative impact on an individual’s well-being.  Even as more employees have returned to working on-site, there is no doubt that remote/hybrid work arrangements are here to stay.  A tool companies can use to help combat employee isolation is to conduct more frequent, but shorter duration, check-ins.  The practice of conducting once-annual performance reviews for the sole purpose of analyzing wage increases is often inadequate to address employee performance, and certainly does not help with employee engagement.  Rather, employers should take care to really listen to their employees.  Employees who feel their concerns are taken seriously, and that they are given opportunities to assist the company with solving workplace problems, are likely to feel more engaged, valued, and have better job satisfaction.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to implementing programs and policies that will improve employee wellness, there are many steps companies can take which require minimal capital investments, but that ultimately pay dividends.