How Companies Are Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace
Though burnout captures most of the headlines when it comes to problems troubling employees, it’s not the biggest issue workers are dealing with today. A study published in the October 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) concluded: “Mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels.” The Mayo Clinic found a major increase in the number of U.S. adults who reported symptoms of addiction, anxiety, depression and insomnia since the start of the pandemic.
While stress around the COVID-19 pandemic gets most of the blame, it’s not the only culprit. "The murders of George Floyd and other Black Americans by the police; the rise in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs); wildfires; political unrest; and other major stressors unfolded in quick succession, compounding the damage to our collective mental health," wrote Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, authors of the HBR study, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work.”
Some might argue that these are personal problems, unrelated to the job, which employees should address as individuals. Experts caution that employers shouldn’t leave this to chance. “Now is the moment for managers to ask difficult personal questions, to learn how to listen, identify and help workers who are struggling,” said David Rock, founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience consultancy currently advising many Fortune 500 companies.
Greenwood and Anas's article reached the same conclusion: "Employers must move from seeing mental health as an individual challenge to a collective priority. Given all the workplace factors at play, companies can no longer compartmentalize mental health as an individual’s responsibility to address alone through self-care, mental health days, or employee benefits."
One of the factors exacerbating the mental health crisis is the long wait time to get help via traditional health plans. The typical wait time between asking for help and getting an appointment is four to six weeks according to Sandra Kuhn, behavioral health consulting leader at Mercer Consulting, one of the oldest human resources consulting practices in the world.
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A Look at the Emerging Mental Health Start-Up World
To bridge that gap, a number of start-ups have emerged that aim to make it easier for employers to deliver assistance to workers at the moment they need it. Consider Ginger, an on-demand mental health provider that was founded in 2011 and is now owned by Headspace. Accessed via an app, the virtual platform is supported by proprietary technology that is built on what the company calls the world’s largest mental health data set. The platform brings together coaches, therapists and psychiatrists with an individual user to ensure the employee receives the appropriate level of care when they want it. Both on-demand and regularly scheduled care is available round the clock. Sessions are delivered via text, video or a self-guided framework. Ginger includes specialized offerings for LGBTQ+, racial trauma, veterans, traditionally underserved groups, and economically disadvantaged groups.
Modern Health, another platform, aims to provide the tools workers need to “build resilience, proactively engage in their mental health, and get the clinical support they need when they need it.” Offerings include clinical therapy; community sessions led by therapists and coaches that include topics such as Honoring LGBTQ+ Voices, BIPOC Mental Health, Healing Latinx/Hispanic Communities, Healing Black Communities and Healing Asian Communities; skill building workshops on topics such as job related stress, loneliness and setting boundaries; as well as self-paced courses which blend multimedia learning, guided exercises and optional coaching.
BetterUp, a so-called “coaching experience,” offers BetterUp Care, which brands itself as a “comprehensive mental health solution that is redefining employee engagement, productivity, and business growth.” It aims to meet each person’s individual needs across the entire well-being spectrum. Its creators argue that with BetterUp, users are less stressed, more productive and more resilient in the face of difficulties. What does that mean for your organization? Ideally, a substantial reduction in health care costs and a thriving, high-performing culture. The “coaching experience” features over 19,000 NCQA based credentialed licensed therapists as well as a diverse and clinically versatile provider network that matches user preferences and needs, aiming to ensure that workers get the help and support that they need.
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There are also on-demand providers like BetterHelp, Talkspace and others that were initially geared to consumers and later launched enterprise offerings. They connect individuals with licensed, trained, experienced and accredited psychologists (PhD / PsyD), marriage and family therapists (LMFT), clinical social workers (LCSW / LMSW), and board licensed professional counselors (LPC). Here, users have the option of texting their therapist in a "room" on the site, in the app (Android, iOS) or contacting via a phone call or video. Talkspace also provides 24/7 access to a therapist.
BetterHelp offers more than 30 weekly, topic-based, interactive group session webinars facilitated by therapists who are experts in that topic/field. The company states that its groupinars are completely anonymous, accessible to all members and kept up to date with current events. BetterHelp provides organizational administrators with the ability to monitor utilization rates, assess mutual stressors, review satisfaction surveys/scores, and track outcomes and effectiveness all with aggregated level (non-PII) reports.
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Overcoming Lingering Mental Health Stigmas
While some workers embrace these services when they need them, for some, there's still a stigma around needing help with mental health. To combat that an increasing number of CEOs and other managers are openly talking about their own struggles. Take, for example, Matthew Cooper, co-founder of EarnUp. In an op-ed published in Quartz he wrote, “In the spirit of transparency and destigmatization, I share that I continue to live with a group of mental health challenges that includes severe anxiety, suicidal ideation, panic attacks, and depression.” Cooper stepped down as CEO but remains involved in the company.
Employees at Buffer are encouraged to talk about and treat their struggles with mental health. “We delight in the joys of life — new babies, pets, plants! work and life achievements! — and we don’t shy away from the hard stuff — depression, anxiety, burnout, and grieving,” wrote Courtney Seiter, the company’s former director of people, in a blog post.
Seiter clearly understands what many other managers have yet to learn. "The future of workplace mental health demands culture change — with more vulnerability, compassion, and sustainable ways of working."