May 23, 2022  |  Brianna McKinney

How Our Understanding of Mental Health in the 21st Century Can Benefit Employees

Each year, tens of millions of Americans face the realities of living with or loving someone with a mental health condition; and that’s now been layered with the double-edged sword of the pandemic. 

On one side, we are witnessing thousands and thousands of people across the country and the globe either fall deeper into crisis, or find themselves experiencing a mental health condition for the very first time. The number of people in my own circle who have said things to me like “wow, I never understood anxiety before, but now I do” is astounding. On the other side, the mental health advocacy and awareness movement is having a rare moment as a result of the pandemic, with more people—and businesses—talking about it and taking action than ever before. 

Mental illness affects everyone directly or indirectly through family, friends, or coworkers. Unfortunately, the pandemic has created a perfect storm for our mental health system. Simultaneous increased demand and decrease in available mental health services have generated a second crisis in our communities. This is particularly true for racial and ethnic minorities and those in lower socioeconomic groups, who faced an increased risk before the pandemic and have also been hardest hit by the virus. 

For children, the situation is more dire. Ashley Abramson, writer for the American Psychological Association, explained that not only have emergency dispatches for children aged 5-17 for mental-health-related crises increased but that 71% of parents in 2020 survey reported that the pandemic took a steep toll on their children’s mental health. In the context of the pandemic, the rates of mental illness have risen precipitously.

Destigmatizing Mental Health in the Workplace

The workplace is one of the most important environments to discuss mental health, however, it is, unfortunately, one of the last places it is discussed. Employees may fear that if they discuss it with their supervisors or colleagues, they risk judgment, shame, or even job loss as a result. We have come a long way in the last two years alone in reducing the stigma of mental illness, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Businesses have the opportunity to shift this culture of fear and shame surrounding mental illness in the workplace.

employee tired stressed

We have seen a groundswell of articles published about mental health in the workplace, citing results from employee surveys that showcase the strong desire for mental health support from employers. With the increased demand from employees and uptick in employees vocalizing their needs, why haven’t more companies who have the opportunity to take action … taken action?

We need to have more conversations that address employee needs, employee demand, and the business benefits at the same time—providing a view on the issue from more than one angle.

It’s important to demonstrate what’s in it for the target audience—the business owner or decision-making team—beyond altruism. When it comes down to it, most companies prioritize and invest in solutions that have a positive impact on bottom-line metrics. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there is plenty we can offer as motivation for companies to put an even greater focus on mental health and wellness. 

Mental health conditions are the single most expensive category of health costs for many employers, across all industries and sizes. Research assessments on the full work impact of mental health often look at the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Health and Work Performance Questionnaire, the results of which are measured in days out of work (absenteeism) and lost productivity (“presenteeism”). Many of the studies in this field have concluded that the indirect costs of mental health in the workplace (lost productivity in particular) actually exceed companies’ spending on the costs of providing access to direct support services, such as contributions to health insurance that includes pharmaceutical coverage. As a business owner myself, if my company wasn’t already investing in the mental health of my employees, data like this shows that providing mental health access and support is not only good for the sake of my employees but also for improving our company’s bottom line.

coworkers working

And the data doesn’t stop there. Even Harvard Medical School suggests thinking of mental health care as a business investment, citing that when depression is adequately treated, for example, “companies reduce job-related accidents, sick days, and employee turnover, as well as improve the number of hours worked and employee productivity.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental health conditions cost employers more than $100 billion and 217 million lost workdays each year. 

By addressing mental health issues in the workplace and investing in mental health care for workers, employers can increase productivity and employee retention. Let’s therefore start including productivity, retention, and other measurable metrics in our conversations—alongside increasing employee needs and demand. 

Bloom’s Model for Supporting Employee Mental Health

Here at Bloom, we’re dedicated to not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Putting your people first is not only good for our communities and families, but it’s good for business. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I followed my gut and did not renew our Austin office lease, which was a full floor of a building in east Austin. We did, however, keep our (much) smaller footprint office in Portland. At this point, our team was fully remote and, with no true end to the pandemic in sight, I realized the money that was being used for the large office space in Austin could be put back into our employees. This led to our entire Bloom team welcoming a fully remote environment—that is, until our world began opening back up and the potential to switch to hybrid work became possible. 

I knew that eventually we would need to—and wanted to—move into an 80-20 model; 80% remote and 20% intentional togetherness. So, as soon as it was safe enough to do so, we began what we call Work Together Wednesdays. These once-a-month events promote intentional togetherness. While these days offer opportunities for face-to-face collaboration, they are more so utilized to promote team bonding. We’ve found that giving employees this and other time to enjoy each other’s company lifts everyone’s spirits and gives our teams something to look forward to. I also signed a lease on a small office in Austin, just five minutes from the Domain. This space plus the other we maintained in Portland allow our team flexibility to work from an office space as needed or desired. 

On an individual level, we know that each team member will still need support unique to their needs. Bloom has always promoted a flexible approach to everyday work hours. Of course, there are going to be deadlines and meetings, but team members are encouraged to build their day-to-day schedule based on what’s going on in their life as a whole. Whether they’re a parent and need to hop off at 4 PM to pick their kids up from school, or attend a yoga class every Friday morning to focus on their physical and mental wellbeing, we recognized in our early years on that a traditionally structured work environment doesn’t support the realistic everyday needs of us as human beings. I should note, however, that flexibility cannot exist alone in a vacuum. At Bloom, it is successful because it is combined with our values-driven recruiting model, trust in our team, and a results-based approach to performance measurement, rather than the traditional hours-based model. 

bloom Portland office group photo

With consideration for the immense mental weight the pandemic has put on all of us and that working remotely can sometimes mean extra work hours sneak into people’s days, in May of 2020 I worked with our executive team to successfully roll out half-day Fridays. While I initially thought this imperative just through the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that our team not only appreciated this, but needed this—so it’s an initiative that still exists to this day. 

And of course, we have traditional benefits at the ready for Bloom employees to access, including mental health and social wellbeing support.

Just like treating depression and other forms of mental illness is not a quick fix, neither is transforming a workplace culture to one of not only acceptance but support. Therefore, if you want your workplace to be one that supports mental health for its employees, the longer you wait to take action, the longer it will be until you see results. Start today.

I know that when mental health becomes something we all talk about openly—in both our personal and professional lives—more people will seek help, feel supported, and have the opportunity to thrive in recovery.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can create a people-first culture, connect with Brianna on LinkedIn.

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