Creating a Positive Mental Health Culture in the Workplace

Dec 26, 2019

Alissa PenneyBy Alissa Penney

I can’t even begin to count the times that I’ve uttered the phrase “mental health is health too”. It seems like mental health and self-care awareness have blossomed over the last handful of years, but have we allowed it to really permeate into the workplace? I don’t mean just the concept of mental health but really supporting employees who need it.

For co-workers and past bosses, it would come as no surprise to find that I’ve personally struggled with mental health wellness. In 2018 alone I changed jobs, moved to a new city, experienced a failed adoption, lost a sibling and a grandparent. And those are just the big things! Still, knowing that I have had my share of struggles, it’s hard for me to remain aware of what employees may be going through and reach out to them when they need me to do so.

The Negative Thought Trap

All of us have probably had a ‘negative’ thought about an employee who frequently calls in “sick”. I’ve found myself falling into that trap, thinking “if I can come to work, they can come to work”, but we’re all different and manage situations differently. It’s such a delicate balance. We want our employees to be mentally well but think poorly of them when they aren’t. So how do we reconcile these two conflicting mindsets?

For me, it’s almost a constant battle. When I find that I’m thinking less of someone for their inability to manage a situation in the way that I would, I have to take extra effort to remind myself that they are not, in fact, me and are allowed to handle things in their own way. I use that almost tangible thought shift to also ask myself, “how can I best support this person right now?” HR professionals should use this as a springboard into how their organization can best support that employee.

5 Considerations

Some things your organization might consider are:

  1. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) It’s important to know that just having an EAP is not enough. You, your company’s leadership, supervisors, everyone really needs to be bought in to using EAP services in order for them to be worth having. If you have an EAP and it isn’t working the way you’d hoped, ask yourself why. Is information not available? Are employees demeaned for using EAP services? Is there a stigma surrounding them? Do you have real leadership support?
  2. Open Door Policies HR is not a counseling service for employees, it’s true, but we can have a major impact on what our employees think of taking care of themselves and communicating how our company values employee mental health. An open-door policy can go a long way to show employees that you take their health seriously.
  3. Explicit Sick Leave Policies Most companies have sick leave policies that are wonderful about detailing the time employees can take off to care for themselves and family members. We tend to trip up when it comes to reminding employees that they can take time off for mental health as well. This includes doctor’s appointments, psychiatric/counseling appointments, and days off when they need time to mentally recoup. If your policy manual doesn’t include mental health language specifically, I encourage you to consider adding it so that your policy supports your organization’s positive mental health culture.
  4. Explicit Leadership Support Does your leadership team have an opinion about mental health in the workplace? Do their employees and departments know how they feel and believe that they have leadership support to manage on their mental health wellness? If not, you may consider having your leadership team create a statement that’s made available to all current and potential employees. It should be explicit and follow your policies so that the communication and follow-through is consistent throughout your organization.
  5. Mental Health Awareness Training Managers and supervisors may not know what the signs of depression, anxiety, dissociation, or other mental health concerns can look like in the workplace. It’s very probable that they don’t know how to handle a situation when an employee is blatantly struggling either. A quality training can help equip managers with practical tools to implement and prepare them for difficult situations that they may face.

Changing Your Approach

If you find yourself thinking “we can’t afford to do those things” or “we can’t do that”, I challenge you to critically think about why you can’t or don’t. Perhaps it’s just the way things are done at your organization. Or maybe you’ve never/always done things that way. If that’s the case, consider changing how you approach mental health wellness.

Changes don’t have to be big at first. But change is inevitable and is crucial if your organization is going to survive the challenges we’re starting to see with Millenials (of which I am one) and Gen Z/IGen. Especially when studies are starting to show trending mental health patterns in both of these groups to the tune of 50% of Millennials and 75% of Gen Z/IGen employees indicating that they have left companies in favor of their own mental health. We would rather work in jobs that pay us less than work in a job that undervalues us and deteriorates our mental health wellness.

Take care of your employees and expect to reap the benefits many times over. Not only does it reduce attrition rates but employees who are mentally well take far fewer sick days. They contribute more in the workplace and are more likely to perpetuate your positive company culture, encouraging potential candidates to consider you as an employer. What are some ways you work to improve a positive mental health culture at your company? Let me know in the comments!

Need a little extra help with creating training or coming up with mental health awareness strategies? ABetterHR is here to help! Give us a call, send us an email, or schedule a time to discuss your goals and how we can best help you get to your Better.

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About the Author

Alissa Penney is the Owner and Lead HR Consultant of A Better HR, an HR consultation company focused on helping small, thinly stretched HR teams do Better work. She loves getting to learn about what makes other HR professionals passionate about the work they do and helping answer difficult HR questions! She’s also an HR for HR contributor and community steward for the Legal & Compliance and Wellbeing groups.


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