Ask Addi P.: How to Best Champion Mental Health in the Workplace

Support strong mental health in the workplace

Dear Addi P.,

Our HR department says that many of our employees have been feeling high stress levels at work. How can providing mental health programs benefit my organization? What are the various types of programs and training? Are there any hidden costs or policies? What is the ROI on such mental health programs?

-Mentally aware in Minneapolis.

Dear Mentally Aware,

Your concerns are justified about mental health in the workplace. A "workaholic mentality," combined with difficult leadership, can cause mental health problems.

Other factors such as reorganizations, changes in leaderhip, or constantly changing processes, policies and objectives create significant stress for the people who are affected. High stress levels can lead to mental health issues. Your employees may be short-tempered and less tolerant, which could strain employee relations. The consequences are often higher absenteeism, lower productivity, higher medical costs and often higher turnover.

In these high-stress scenarios, HR sometimes becomes the de facto counselor, which is not their role. HR can assist by identifying and routing employees to the resources that are available to help them. Alternatively, as you note, you can offer a mental health program, which HR can help employees learn about and access.

Your Program Options

Many of your employees indentify with their work. This makes sense since most people spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else. Because of this, it's important to incorporate recognition and appreciation as part of any well-being initiative. Recognition and appreciation makes employees feel valued, which positively reinforces their identity and helps prevent feelings of depression. Employee of the month, consistent recognition of employees' contributions during meetings, and managers simply saying thank you for outstanding work are ways to institutionalize recognition and appreciation.

Work-life balance is also an important component of strong mental health in the workplace. Offering and insisting on the use of flex-time options, flexible vacation scheduling and time off for medical or other appointments promotes balance. Establishing parameters for ignoring emails or texts after hours will also help your employees disconnect.

Physical health can aid mental health, and vice versa. Mind and body programs are essential components of a fully integrated wellness program. This can include mindfulness options such as meditation or yoga. You could periodically hire a psychologist to conduct stress reduction workshops or an instructor to teach meditation techniques. Or you could offer memberships to a nearby gym or yoga studio that offers classes at lunch time. Existing employee assistance programs (EAPs) may also provide resources to help employees address stress and related concerns.

Another key component of a strong mental well-being program is addressing financial stress. If your employees are experiencing pressure due to worry about their bills, student loans or insufficient retirement savings, that stress overflows into work. Offering courses or training in financial management, retirement investing and debt management can help employees understand financial issues, take constructive action and reduce the anxiety of financial worries.


Forbes says employers lose or spend between $79 billion and $105 billion due to mental health issues, including substance abuse. More than 20 percent of people in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental health condition. That means there is a strong likelihood that a significant percentage of your employees are affected, and the stress they are experiencing is only exacerbating their problems. The financial benefits of positively addressing stress and other mental health issues are significant.

One major benefit of investing in mental well-being programs is the increased level of engagement. A more positive outlook and relaxed demeanor support stronger employee interactions and greater empathy. Engagement and outlook can be difficult to quantify, though. To determine the ROI for your program, focus on what is measurable. Measure your firm's current employee productivity, absenteeism and turnover rates. Create the financial projections for the additional costs of your multi-faceted mental health program. Then determine the anticipated improvements in productivity, absenteeism and turnover and their associated dollar values. The differences between this and the cost of your program provides your ROI.

A well-rounded program doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Leveraging existing resources, such as EAPs and nearby gyms, will lower the investment and allow a wider variety of options. You can then mitigate the negative effects of stress on mental health in the workplace and have a happier, more engaged and productive workforce.