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How we can help employees manage their mental health needs

Originally published in The Tennessean, March 2022

Ensuring that employees are comfortable and productive in their workplace isn’t a new concern for business leaders and managers. But the past two years have brought sharply into focus how much mental health affects our productivity — and how constant changes to routines and rules can lead to burnout.  

Consider some of the current challenges affecting companies and their employees. Despite a decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, we still see lingering fear and uncertainty about the illness. The pandemic era may be a vastly different experience for someone with elderly, high-risk parents or a loved one with cancer or populations that have historic health disparities.

The transition to home-based work wasn’t smooth for many of us, particularly those who thrive on social interaction.  The transition back to the office has carried its own set of challenges, as we all adjust to a new normal.

On top of that, we have inflation, supply shortages, and a war in Ukraine — a conflict hitting close to home for many of us here in the U.S.

We’re seeing an increase in substance and alcohol use as well as sleep deprivation, all of which can contribute to increased workplace errors and accidents.

All of these scenarios affect business leaders, as well. You’ve had to respond quickly to changing circumstances while maintaining a commitment to employee and workplace safety. You’ve had to creatively adapt to a virtual working world. And you’ve had to worry about staying in business and paying your employees.

But that concern must extend beyond the financial side of employee support.

Steps for leaders

Here are four ways leaders can help employees manage their stress while on the job.

  1. Create a positive work environment. Cultivate an authentic, caring workplace with healthy boundaries for employees. This begins with regularly expressing your appreciation for their resiliency. Ensure they have uninterrupted time for lunch and try to avoid scheduling meetings after 4 p.m. so employees can focus on wrapping their workday and transition to family focus. We can all agree that late hours shouldn’t be the norm, so evaluate workloads and deadline needs and shift projects as needed to keep work within standard work hours. Consider anonymous surveys so employees can feel safe being honest and transparent.
  2. Communicate with intent. Listen to your employees’ expressed needs and feelings. Be mindful of terms you use and understand how they can affect the outcome. For example, the terms “mental health,” “anxiety” or “depression” still carry a degree of stigma, but “stress” feels more accepted. Acknowledge that many things causing employees stress are beyond their control — and that they affect you, as well.  Offer regular updates on business plans and goals, job security, and workplace transitions while emphasizing on available supports.
  3. Create meaningful engagements. Ask your employees to generate ideas for virtual team social events, volunteer activities or small group get-togethers. Engaging with your employees can also provide opportunities to gauge their satisfaction and needs.
  4. Make services available to employees. Reiterate the benefits that are offered within your health plan. This can include employee assistance programs, services to help adjust to a digital world, funding for emergency situations, or online mental health resources. And when in doubt, you can’t beat the classics: encourage them to use their paid time off, make it easier for them to do so, and offer more of it.

These opportunities can remove stigmas surrounding mental health treatments  and let your employees know you appreciate the meaningful work they do every day.

Perhaps most importantly, it shows that you value their health just as much as you value the success of your business.

About Dr. Judith Overton, Behavioral Health Medical Director

A photo of the authorJudith Overton, MD, is a psychiatrist and medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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