Mental Health In the Workplace: A Guide for Promoting Mental Health and Understanding Legal Protections

In recent years, mental health has become a prevalent topic for people of all ages. According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH):

  • In 2019, 51.5 million adults 18 years of age and older had signs of mental illness;
  • Among those adults, only about half received mental health services;
  • Young adults aged 18-25 years received the least amount of mental health services;
  • An estimated 49.5% of adolescents had any mental disorder in 2019.

These numbers show that while many people suffer from poor mental health or mental illnesses, they are not receiving help. According to studies, workplace stress contributes significantly to general mental health issues:

  • 83% of workers suffer from work-related stress;
  • 57% of stressed-out people are paralyzed by stress;
  • 54% of workers report that stress from work affects their life at home;
  • Depression is one of the three main workplace problems for employees.

Employees might try to hide mental health issues at work since there can still be a negative stigma surrounding mental health. Of course, work isn’t usually the sole reason behind any of these issues, but working 40 hours a week in a stressful environment can exacerbate them. This is why it’s important to promote mental health in the workplace. Employers and HR professionals can use the workplace as an avenue to prevent mental health problems and provide solutions. 

The Importance of Work to An Individual’s Mental Health

Being employed provides five categories of psychological experiences that promote well-being and aren’t typically accessed anywhere else:

    • Time structure: Many people experience anxiousness when they are facing deadlines or a variety of tasks. Organizing a time structure for those tasks can help relieve a psychological burden and keep employees productive throughout the day. 
    • Social contact: Social isolation can be a trigger for mental illness. Forms of social interactions, including healthy relationships with coworkers and bosses, can boost wellbeing. 
    • Collective effort and purpose: Being employed provides a sense of belonging and social context outside of the family. Studies show that people who create a sense of purpose and meaning experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. 
    • Social identity: Employment can be seen as an important element in defining oneself. Often people are asked “what do you do,” and having a job can help define that aspect of life. 
  • Regular activity: Being employed allows individuals to organize their daily lives. Creating daily routines can help take the guesswork out of the day, which can contribute to fewer symptoms of stress and anxiety. 

By promoting and cultivating these aspects of the workplace, employees and employers can reap the benefits of a mentally healthy environment. 

The Importance of Promoting Mental Health In the Workplace

Companies thrive with employees that are healthy and productive, which is why it’s important for managers and decision-makers to advocate for mental health. There are many advantages to this type of support in the workplace, including:

  • Creating a safe and positive workplace for all employees;
  • Addressing issues before they become problems;
  • Reducing the suffering of employees by offering treatment options;
  • Improving productivity and engagement;
  • Reducing costs and risks.

By engaging employees and allowing them to openly talk about mental health issues, companies can gain a competitive advantage when trying to obtain talent. 

Consequences of Mental Health Problems at Work

Mental health is a crucial aspect of an employee’s overall health. Additionally, work-related stress can be a major cause of poor mental health. If mental health issues are not addressed in the workplace, there can be major consequences for the companies and the employees involved. For example, mental health issues could lead to:

  • An increase in absenteeism due to poor health and physical symptoms caused by stress;
  • A decrease in work performance;
  • Burnout;
  • A loss of motivation and commitment;
  • Labor turnover;
  • Conflict between coworkers;
  • Poor client relationships;
  • An increase in disciplinary problems. 

There are also risks associated with certain job tasks, like high workloads or tasks that do not suit a person’s skills. Bullying and harassment in the workplace are also causes of work-related stress and can have both physical and mental consequences for the entire workplace. All these issues can potentially be carried over into an employee’s personal life, worsening their mental health state. 

Tips for Promoting Mental Health In the Workplace

Businesses are an ideal place to talk about mental health because there are already communication structures in place. Additionally, all programs and policies come from the same management team, which can help promote standards and expectations for all employees. To promote mental health in the workplace, employers should consider the following:

  • Create mental health self-assessment tools that are available to all employees;
  • Offer clinical screenings for mental health issues from a mental health professional and provide feedback and clinical referrals;
  • Offer health insurance plans that include payment for medications and counseling;
  • Provide programs that can help empower employees, like life-coaching;
  • Distribute reading materials about poor mental health and the opportunities for treatment;
  • Host seminars or workshops that address mental health;
  • Create quiet spaces for relaxation activities;
  • Develop managers to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and mental health issues in team members;
  • Empower employees with opportunities to participate in decisions that affect job stress.
  • Include mental health as a core value in your company;
  • Ensure employees are not discriminated against when they disclose about their mental health issues;
  • Create workplace guidelines for health and safety practices;
  • Implement team-building exercises to promote teamwork and bonding;
  • Provide employees with flexible and telework hours.

Strategy Planning and Training for Mental Health Awareness

In order to teach employees about mental health awareness, businesses must understand the importance themselves. By increasing leadership’s knowledge, coping mechanisms, and available treatment, companies can create an inclusive, safe environment that is actionable for their employees. Below are some resources that can help:

  • Employer Resources: These resources are brought forth by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and the Center for Workplace Mental Health. It provides informative resources for employers that seek to enhance employee quality of life as well as improve absenteeism and productivity. 
  • The Collaborative Care Model: This infographic shows the benefits of investing in a collaborative care model for mental health. This can help show employees what resources are available to them to help with their mental health issues. 
  • Whil: This is a digital solution that can help employees practice mindfulness, stress resilience, and enhance their sleep and emotional intelligence. 
  • Job Accommodation Network Resources: This toolkit was developed to help instruct employers on the available accommodation resources for mental health issues.
  • SHRM Resource Article on Mental Health Accommodations: This article provides employers with strategic solutions for accommodations, confidentiality, medical information, and employee privacy.
  • Family Guide to Employment: This guide can help support families and job seekers by promoting successful employment. It provides links to major employment topics. 
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): This website provides information on prevention and the symptoms of anxiety and depression, the two most common mental illnesses. 
  • Mental Health Calculator: This helps calculate the impact of mental health issues in your workplace. 
  • Right Direction: This initiative was developed by employers to address depression in the workplace. 
  • Mental Health America: This website provides online screening tests for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. 

Issues Facing Employers and Managers 

Although employers are increasing their mental health offerings in the workplace, there are still some challenges. These challenges include:

    • Stigma: Employees may not feel comfortable opening up about their mental health issues. Additionally, there is a general understanding that work can be stressful, which can make it difficult for employees to differentiate between typical, daily stress, and mental health issues. 
    • Technology: Having access to work technologies creates an “always-on” work mentality, which can make it hard for employees to prioritize mental health. 
  • Compliant Tasks: It’s important for employers to implement effective tasks that are compliant with anti-discrimination laws. For instance, deadline-driven and time-sensitive projects can contribute to mental health issues, and employers should be aware of what their employees can handle. 
  • Finding programs: There are many programs that can help support employees, however, finding the right one can prove difficult. Employers should obtain as much employee input as possible so that they can provide the appropriate preventative, treatment, and rehabilitation programs. 

Taking Leave for Mental Health

Some employers allow their employees to take time off whenever they need a mental health break. Often employees will use paid time-off, integrate a flexible schedule, or take a non-paid day off. However, some employers don’t allow this, which could be a violation of an employee’s rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. By not following these guidelines, employers could be discriminating against employees, which is against the law. While this can help employees obtain one or two days off for mental health, it’s important to note that employers can ask for a doctor’s note if the leave of absence extends more than a couple of days. 

If an employee thinks they developed a mental health illness because of their job, they could be eligible for workers’ compensation. This type of employee benefit provides financial assistance to individuals who have sustained injuries from work. Employees can also take advantage of workers’ comp for mental illnesses. Before gaining approval, employees may need to demonstrate a connection between their job and their mental health issues:

  1. The mental health issue must be disclosed to the employer;
  2. The employer may refer to a mental health professional for diagnosis or treatment;
  3. The employee must go through a psychological evaluation;
  4. The evaluator prepares a report for the workers’ comp insurer;
  5. The insurer will review the report and decide whether the employee needs to pay the claim in full or not. 

It’s important to follow each step thoroughly to avoid receiving a denial of their workers’ comp claim

Short-Term and Long-Term Disability for Mental Health

Some companies go as far as allowing their employees to take a short- or long-term leave of absence to help them handle whatever mental health struggle they may be experiencing. While both of these benefits can provide compensation for employees, there are some differences between short- and long-term disability they need to be aware of. 

Short-term disability is meant to cover immediate illness or injury. With short-term disability, employees:

  • Get 40-60% of weekly wages;
  • Can cover injuries outside the workplace;
  • Obtain coverage that lasts nine to 52 weeks;
  • Qualify for benefits through short-term disability insurance through an employer.

Long-term disability is meant to maintain income if your illness or injury keeps an employee out of work past the end of short-term disability. With long-term disability, employees:

  • Get 50-70% of weekly wages;
  • Obtain coverage that can last for two to 10 years;
  • Qualify for benefits through the employer’s insurance.

Steps An Employer Can Take to Help An Employee Return to Work

When returning to work after an extended period of time, employees will likely need support from employers to ease the transition. Initially, employers must ensure the employee has or is currently seeking help and that they are mentally stable enough to perform daily duties to industry standards. Then, before the employee returns to work, employers should:

  • Keep the employee connected with what is going on at work;
  • Meet with the employee before they return to work to discuss how to best support them;
  • Learn about their needs to support and understand them;
  • Discuss which information should be shared with coworkers;
  • Provide any training and resources they need to get up to speed. 

When the employee does return to work, employers should try to make the workplace as accommodating as possible. For instance, employers can:

  • Alter the pace of work;
  • Lower the noise level of work;
  • Provide water, tea, or soda and crushed ice to combat a dry mouth caused by some medications;
  • Provide extra encouragement and praise related to job performance, but only if warranted and not obviously excessive;
  • Avoid over-protection of the employee;
  • Make sure the employee is treated as a member of the team and not excluded from social events, business meetings, or other activities relevant to the job.

Employers must understand their responsibilities when an employee returns from a mental health leave. Creating an effective return-to-work policy can help set up standards and expectations for both employees and management. By doing so, employers can balance the responsibility for their employees and their business. 

Legal Protections Against Discrimination

Throughout the years, there have been different laws set in place that protect employees from discrimination in the workplace. This includes protecting employees with mental health issues. 

American Disability Act (ADA)

The ADA became a law in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The law is divided into five titles that relate to different areas of public life where these individuals should receive fair treatment:

  • Employment;
  • Public services (at the state and local level);
  • Public accommodations and services operated by private entities;
  • Telecommunications;
  • Miscellaneous provisions including transportation.

If businesses are not ADA compliant, they could face monetary fines anywhere from $55,000 to $75,000. If the violation occurs regularly, businesses could face a maximum fine of $150,000. You can search the ADA website for more information on this law. 

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against job applicants or employees for a number of reasons, including:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religion;
  • Sex;
  • National origin;
  • Age;
  • Disability;
  • Genetic information.

This law applies to employers with at least 15 employees and covers all types of work situations including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits. If an employee feels they have been discriminated against, the EEOC will investigate the allegations and try to settle the charge. If the business is found guilty, the employee has a right to sue. To find more information, visit the EEOC website

Medical Discrimination: How It Happens and What to Do About It

It’s against the law for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of a medical condition. For instance, if an employer refuses to hire an employee because of a medical condition, the employee could take legal action against them. Examples of discrimination include:

  • Refusing to train someone;
  • Firing someone because of a medical condition;
  • Compensating someone differently;
  • Demoting an employee;
  • Denying a promotion;
  • Forcing an employee to quit;
  • Harassing an employee;
  • Reducing payment;
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodation.

It’s important to note that some employers may take action that can be perceived as medical discrimination. For example, an employer is legally obligated to remove an employee from a job if it interferes with employee and workplace safety. 

Employers can use a variety of tactics to help stop and prevent medical discrimination from happening in the future:

  • Develop a written policy that defines standards and procedures to prevent discrimination;
  • Establish a process for resolving issues in the workplace;
  • Educate employees on how to prevent workplace discrimination.

Employee Mental Health Assistance Programs

Some employees may need extra assistance to help them balance their work and home life as well as their mental health. Assistance programs can help employees with a number of mental health issues by providing support groups, counseling, coping mechanisms, and more. 

Resources for Employees with Psychological Disorders and Other Mental Health Issues

Employees with psychological disorders may need more intense treatment than others. Resources for them include:

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): these programs provide services that can help address a variety of personal problems that could interfere with their work life. 
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI can provide support groups, free education, and awareness materials. 
  • Mental Health Resources (MHR): This is a nonprofit that provides mental health services to adults. 
  • American Psychiatry Association: This site hosts the largest membership of psychiatrists, providing resources and materials on various illnesses. 
  • Office on Women’s Health: This site provides access to research and publications pertaining to women’s mental health issues.
  • Freedom from Fear: This nonprofit provides research and treatment options for anxiety and depression. 
  • Autism Speaks: This website contains links to apps and toolkits to help people with autism spectrum disorders and their families. 
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: This is a peer-led organization run by individuals with depression and bipolar disorder. It provides support groups, wellness tools, research, podcasts, and other materials. 
  • National Eating Disorder Association: This nonprofit supports people with eating disorders and their families. It provides information on prevention, treatment, and recovery as well as toolkits. 
  • Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: This site provides research on causes and treatments of mental health illnesses, including schizophrenia, OCD, depression, and anxiety. 

Resources for Employees with Marital or Family-Related Issues

Employees that are dealing with marital or family-related issues may have an increase in anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. These issues could interfere at work. These resources can help employees navigate these difficult times: 

  • Tongue Fu!: This self-help book can help couples smooth out communication issues. 
  • Smart Marriages: This site provides couples with information that can help partners foster a stronger marriage. Resources include classes, articles, reports, research, and community initiatives. 
  • The Relationship Institute: This site can help couples recover after infidelity. It also offers free articles and resources to help couples through difficult times. 

Financial Resources for Employees 

Even though employees can obtain financial help through their employer’s insurance, it may not be enough to cover their family expenses and household bills. These resources can help:

  • Unemployment: If an employee loses their job, they can take advantage of unemployment financial resources. To apply, they must show they are actively looking for a job by submitting a certain number of applications per week. 
  • Financial Wellness Plan: Employers can implement this plan into their health benefits to help educate employees on making smart decisions with their money. 
  • Employee Assistance Funds: This program helps employees cope with unexpected hardships. It provides assistance by supporting the workplace through a third party and alleviates the burden to the company and the employee. 
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): This program provides grants to help with food, housing, and other necessities. 
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): This program can help families and individuals in need pay for their utilities. 
  • Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8): This program can help secure affordable housing for low-income families and individuals. 
  • Medicare Savings Programs: These programs help families and individuals pay for premiums, copayments, coinsurance, deductibles, and other medical expenses. 
  • Feeding America: This nonprofit provides emergency food assistance through food banks, food pantries, and meal programs. 
  • GoFundMe: This website can help families and individuals raise money for a variety of reasons, including unexpected expenses. 

Resources for Employees that Need Legal Assistance

If an employee discovers they have been a victim of discrimination or have obtained any other type of mental or physical harm, they may need legal assistance to help navigate the many complexities of a claim. Some resources include:

  • EEOC: The EEOC can help enforce all discrimination laws in the workplace, and can investigate allegations of discrimination if they need to. 
  • Workplace Fairness: This website can help educate the public on workplace discrimination. While this site does not offer legal advice, it can give straightforward answers that can help employees understand if they are facing discrimination.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): The ACLU helps defend and preserve individual rights, including those who are discriminated against for mental illnesses or disabilities. 
  • Free Legal Answers: Those that qualify for the program can submit civil law questions to the American Bar Association, where volunteer lawyers can answer questions. 

Employees can also refer to the employee handbook that is available to them through their employer. They can use this resource to understand if they have a case against their employer. Additionally, this handbook should provide the correct department to talk to about certain issues.

Resources for Employees with Catastrophic Medical Problems

Those with chronic medical conditions may need more assistance, treatment, and accommodations throughout their employment. These chronic diseases can include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression. Chronic illnesses can also exacerbate mental health illnesses since people must live with them every day. Resources for employees living with these conditions include:

Retirement Planning Resources

Dealing with frequent leaves of absence can exacerbate mental illnesses. It can also cause people to worry about their future. One thing people can do to ensure their future is protected financially is to plan for their retirement. Resources that can help include:

  • AARP Resources: This site provides a variety of resources that can explain how retirement works, what financial decisions to make, and other information people need to know about retirement. 
  • Department of Labor resources: The DOL provides countless resources that can help people plan for retirement through toolkits and articles. 
  • NerdWallet: This website can help people make sound financial decisions about their retirement and other financial milestones. 
  • HighYa: This financial blog provides insights and tips for people who want to plan for retirement. 
  • Investopedia: This blog is one of the internet’s most popular sites for financial content. It provides strategies for retirement and can answer most questions people have about personal finance. 
  • Investor Junkie: This blog can help make finances easy for people to understand. 
  • Good Financial Cents: This blog offers advice from financial experts to help people make sound decisions for retirement. 
  • Investment Zen: This blog can help make it fun to plan for retirement. Their retirement calculator can help people understand how much they should save.

Resources for Those Facing Career-Related Difficulties

Employees may face myriad problems at work. Difficulties with coworkers, not being heard by bosses, and struggling to fit in can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues. If employees are facing career-related difficulties, these resources can help:

  • Live Career: This resource can help people deal with a variety of work situations, including bad bosses, job burnout, and office politics. 
  • SHRM Resources: This website provides information about compliance, training, investigation, and other tools pertaining to workplace harassment. 
  • Empower Work: This nonprofit helps build healthier and more equitable workplaces by giving employees a safe place to disclose. 
  • Talk to Spot: Employees can use this anonymous chatbot to help report workplace harassment and discrimination.

Ways Employees Can Promote Mental Health In the Workplace

Employers are not the only people who can promote mental health in the workplace; employees can also lead by example. Ways that employees can help promote mental health in the workplace include:

  • Encourage employers to offer mental health and stress management education and programs that meet their needs and interests, if they are not already in place.
  • Participate in employer-sponsored programs and activities to learn skills and get the support they need to improve their mental health.
  • Serve as dedicated wellness champions and participate in training on topics such as financial planning and how to manage unacceptable behaviors and attitudes in the workplace as a way to help others, when appropriate.
  • Share personal experiences with others to help reduce stigma, when appropriate.
  • Be open-minded about the experiences and feelings of colleagues. Respond with empathy, offer peer support, and encourage others to seek help.
  • Adopt behaviors that promote stress management and mental health.
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, and get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Take part in activities that promote stress management and relaxation, such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or tai chi.
  • Build and nurture real-life, face-to-face social connections.
  • Take the time to reflect on positive experiences and express happiness and gratitude.
  • Set and work toward personal, wellness, and work-related goals and ask for help when it is needed.

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