Creating Safety and Inclusivity for Mental Health

by Rita E. Garwood Vol. 48 No. 7 2021
Nearly one in five people have a mental health condition, so employers must make mental health a priority when creating an inclusive workplace. Therapist Charles Hill explains the steps that employers and managers can take to ensure their teams feel safe and supported at work.

Charles Hill Jr. ,

Although it might not be top of the inclusivity list for employers, employee mental health must be a priority.

“Mental health challenges are real, and they affect someone’s thinking, feelings and behavior,” Charles Hill Jr., who recently left the equipment finance industry to become a therapist, says. “Research shows that nearly one out of five people have a mental health condition.1 Ignoring the reality of mental health challenges only increases the stigma and can hinder employees from discussing the challenges they are facing.”

This stigma may lead employees to think they will be judged, micromanaged or passed over for career advancement for disclosing mental health challenges. “Professionals need to create a space where it can be discussed and resources for support can be provided,” Hill says.

Employers can support and include employees in various ways when it comes to mental health. Hill suggests gauging how employees are doing and what can be done differently to support their mental health through engagement surveys.

“Employers can create an avenue for employees to share information and resources with one another,” Hill says. “This could be through different collaboration tools or establishing support groups.”

Hill also says managers can best support and include their teams by creating a safe space where employees can talk about their mental health. Managers can lead by example, demonstrating the importance of managing mental and emotional health.

“Everybody is impacted by stress and copes with it differently,” Hill says. “As an example, imagine an environment where a leader would share with their team, ‘I’m feeling a little stressed today, I’m going to make sure I take a walk during my break’ or ‘I’ve been feeling more tired recently, so I’m planning to take a PTO day soon.’ This level of vulnerability with stress is just a step in allowing employees to be open about their challenges and what they may need for self-care. Taking it a step further: Imagine an environment where a leader shared struggles with depression or anxiety and ways they are managing. When managers express vulnerability, it builds psychological safety within a team. Expressing vulnerability takes courage and courage can inspire others to speak up.”

Managers can also support their teams by becoming more equipped. “Specifically, they can become more aware of signs that someone may be in distress or dealing with a mental health condition,” Hill says, noting that changes in behavior like becoming more easily irritated or more withdrawn can be potential indicators. “Managers can develop and demonstrate empathy with their teams, and they can also partner with their teams to build a culture of resiliency,” Hill says.

But what can managers do if their employees just don’t feel safe revealing mental health information at work?

“Each employer has its own unique culture and challenges when addressing this issue,” Hill says. “First, they can discover the barriers hindering people from feeling safe and remove them.”

Hill says providing employees with options that don’t involve speaking to colleagues is important, as it allows employees to address mental health challenges without fear. Part of this comes down to the culture of a company. How can a company develop this culture?

“Leaders can communicate to their teams that they can reach out if they are experiencing any mental health challenges,” Hill says. “And based on the nature of what the employee shares, the leader could direct that individual to an appropriate resource.

“Leaders can also create a culture of safety and inclusivity around this issue by regularly checking in. These check-ins can be done in team meetings and one-on-ones. Just being able to have those check-ins with their team members to not only check in about work, but also about how they’re doing as a whole person.

“Don’t just assume that somebody’s going to end up raising their hand or coming forward and saying that they are struggling when that culture does not exist. When you’re reaching out, it can make somebody feel more comfortable in being able to talk about any struggles they are experiencing. Demonstrating care for an employee’s mental health can go a long way in helping an employee feel supported and creating a safe and inclusive environment for mental health.”

1“Mental Illness,” National Institute of Mental Health.

Rita E. Garwood is editor in chief of Monitor.

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