Mental health at work: Top 3 questions for employers

Keys for protecting mental health at work – from keeping an eye out for issues to what employers can do to help.

lauren payne

by Lauren Payne

Mental health at work is a large, complex, and sensitive topic. But it’s becoming a more and more important one to address. Through expanding programs for awareness and prevention to regulations in protecting workers’ rights, we see the scope of occupational health widening beyond physical well-being to include mental health concerns.

Yet while more and more companies are aware of their role in supporting workers in matters related to stress, depression, burn-out, and mental illness, they might not be sure of exactly how to do so. Here are 3 questions about mental health in the work environment – and answers that can help you approach this critical issue in your business.

Are there regulations to follow for mental health at work?

Regulation in mental health at work varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, globally, we can see that the spotlight on these issues continues to increase.

In Chile, there is the new legislation to protect and promote human rights of people with mental disorders. The legislation includes a broad sensitization around this topic, including incorporating provisions regarding people with mental health issues into draft legislations.

Ghana’s Mental Health Act states that there is a Mental Health Authority to help implement the act’s measures, such as appointing a director of mental health. Additionally, other countries like Uganda, Vanuatu, Tokelau, and Sierra Leone have legislation in place to help employees with mental health issues.

In the United States, companies must follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If their mental health so requires, they may need reasonable accommodations under the ADA. For instance, if an employee experiences panic issues, the employer must provide a reasonable notice period for projects, wherever possible. Otherwise, the US Department of Labor provides guidance for employers to help them deal with mental health issues.

On its site, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides a list of key United Nations and regional health treaties relevant to mental health protection, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).   

How can I identify severe stress or other mental health issues?

While stress and mental health issues don’t always manifest themselves in visible ways, they can greatly affect one’s physical health. This can include sometimes reducing workers’ motor skills and cognitive ability, manifesting through specific behaviors or symptoms.

Some of signs of stress or mental distress include:

  • irritation,
  • anger,
  • denial,
  • uncertainty,
  • nervousness,
  • anxiety,
  • lack of motivation,
  • feeling tired or overwhelmed,
  • feeling sad or depressed,
  • having trouble sleeping, and
  • having trouble concentrating.

Physical symptoms include:

  • chest pain,
  • low energy,
  • upset stomach,
  • aches and pains throughout the body, and
  • frequent colds and infections.

If employees are experiencing any of these symptoms above, they should seek support and potentially treatment. Employers can help by first following all safety and occupational health regulations in their operating jurisdictions and then by creating opportunities for workers to share their concerns and issues.

How can I help support employees’ mental health at work?

There is a heavy stigma around mental health, especially in the workplace, that stops people from discussing it and eventually seeking treatment. Often, people are afraid that if they talk with a manager about their stress, depression, or other mental illnesses, they may be fired. However, that’s not the case – mental illness alone isn’t a valid or legal reason to terminate employment.

Done with care, these conversations can foster not only trust from the employee but also a deeper understanding by their manager. For instance, if employees’ performance has been lacking, this type of conversation could help to clear up misconceptions about “laziness.”

The best way to help address (and sometimes prevent) issues is to let employees know that there is an open floor for discussion – and then prove it. Simply saying you welcome the conversation won’t go as far as showing that you do.

Integrate mental health awareness into your company’s culture, helping employees feel comfortable about discussing their concerns – and creating opportunities to do so, such as by:

  • Regularly highlighting its importance in town hall meetings,
  • Providing employees with information about symptoms and where to find support, as well as
  • Offering a chance to discuss any concerns in private manager-employee conversations.

Additionally, companies can help promote mental health at work by encouraging healthy practices in general, including educating on and encouraging:

  • Short breaks during work time,
  • Balanced eating habits, and
  • Regular exercise.

Making mental health at work a priority in your business

With our world’s ever-changing, stress-inducing circumstances, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic as well as political and social unrest, mental health is more a critical topic than ever. And it doesn’t stop at the door when employees come into work.

It’s increasingly important for employers to do their part to keep the workplace a happy, healthy, and safe space for all employees. You can use the guidance above to help protect employees beyond their physical safety, ensuring an environment where they can “be” better.

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