Mental health and wellness are increasingly in the spotlight. ADP's Amy Freshman shares creative insights for organizations on supporting employee mental health, both formally through coverage and policies, to learning how to foster a culture that's stigma-free.

Mental health days have entered the discussion on how businesses can support workers' overall well-being. However, despite rising awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in the workplace, many organizations still wrestle with stigma associated with mental health challenges.

Bloomberg Law reports that 63% of employees took a mental health day in the last year, yet 44% felt the need to lie to their boss about the reason for taking the day off. Organizations that want to actively support their teams' mental health and wellness should consider implementing proactive approaches, such as including mental health days in their HR policy.

The data is clear, but the discussion is ongoing. We spoke to Amy Freshman, Senior Director of Global HR for ADP, to get her expert take on the issue. Here are her insights on supporting employees as they bring their whole selves to work, as well as guidance on deciding whether offering mental health days is right for your organization.

Mental health is in the spotlight — do your organization's benefits shine?

Throughout the global health crisis, employees' mental health challenges have been thrust into the spotlight. While these issues existed before, there's been a cultural shift to prioritize addressing them. Stressors from the general state of the world, as well as blurring lines between home and work due to remote or hybrid work, are contributing factors. Freshman has several suggestions for businesses that want to take action to address these issues.

First, start by evaluating your benefits to make sure they offer adequate mental health support options. The baseline for HR departments has traditionally been offering basic health insurance, but today's HR benefits leaders are asking additional questions. "Now it's 'How much is covered from a mental health perspective?' and 'How many different types of offerings are included in the typical plan?'" says Freshman.

Other benefits to evaluate include providing access to an employee assistance plan (EAP), which connects employees with counseling and other resources, from financial providers to legal advice. Often, Freshman says, it's not about companies adding new benefits — it's simply making sure existing employees and new hires are fully aware of the options that are already in place, and reminding them from time to time.

Considering mental health needs in the context of wellness

Increasing the focus on mental health can often be conducted most successfully within the context of larger wellness initiatives.

"Beyond basic benefits, what other programs can be offered to really encourage wellness?" prompts Freshman. "Wellness is a big topic, and mental health is just one of many pieces. Physical, spiritual and financial well-being are also important."

If discussing mental health challenges is a new approach for your business, addressing the topic in the context of broader wellness discussions can help engage employees to open up. Focusing on overall wellness can also allow you to provide support for areas that may be causing stress, from physical health to financial well-being.

Additionally, wellness programs can provide practice in the soft skills and communications strategies that are essential to discussing mental health. "If you start broad and then drill down, it may help draw people in and draw them out to feel more comfortable," notes Freshman.

Building a culture that addresses stigma

One of the most significant challenges employers face is overcoming stigma against mental health concerns. The denigration of people who experience mental health issues can leave employees feeling nervous about accessing resources or talking about their challenges. Conversely, taking charge of the conversation can shift corporate culture for the better. "Fighting that stigma is a big opportunity for us to take action," Freshman explains. "Once you open the conversation and make it more commonplace, it will help to reduce the stigma."

Encouraging leadership to speak up about their own challenges can be a key step in modeling behavior that helps people open up. Consider finding opportunities for senior leaders or others to share experiences they or their loved ones have had to help generate discussion about issues that may be affecting other members of the organization as well. "Opening up and sharing that conversation sets a really positive tone on openness, candor and, again, helping to reduce that stigma," says Freshman. At a minimum, it may prompt your employees to think, "I am not alone," which is a step in the right direction.

Positive role models can encourage employees to be more open about their experiences and needs. "It can help employees say, 'I'll come forward and share perhaps more than I was initially going to, because I know my leader can direct me to resources. They can direct me to my EAP and potentially to different programs within the organization to make sure I can get the best support and care. If I don't say anything, they won't know to direct me,'" Freshman notes.

Training managers on how to start the conversation

It's also important to provide training for managers on how to check in with employees to foster the daily touchpoints of a supportive culture. The willingness to open up requires a foundation of trust.

The training can be as simple as encouraging managers to notice changes in employees' behavior and reach out to check in. "If an employee works for me, and we have regular conversations and weekly stand-ups, and suddenly they're not as vocal — or maybe they're usually on video, but the last few times they haven't been on video — or they're sounding distant," Freshman advises that that's the time to reach out. "Some of these may be subtle signs for me to lean in on the side and say, 'How are you doing?' — to just stop and wait for the answer, and open up a conversation." This is not about training your leaders to be mental health counselors; this is about teaching them to look for queues, signals and signs that maybe someone is not okay.

Freshman also notes that, while this is a leader-to-associate example, similar conversations can happen peer-to-peer or across a team as well. The more opportunities you take to foster these touchpoints, the greater your chances of building and maintaining a culture of support become.

Validating mental health as a driver of paid time off

Increasingly, organizations are letting employees know they can take time off to address mental health needs. "Whether an organization calls it a mental health day, a personal day or a sick day, mental health days should be acknowledged, accepted and even encouraged," says Freshman.

Today, businesses have a variety of options for addressing their employees' mental health concerns. Some are adding dedicated mental health days to their benefits menus. Others are simply making sure employees know mental health needs are a valid use of time off. One aspect of this is communicating the information informally, but Freshman recommends that organizations also evaluate their formal policy language.

"Many companies are just going to keep to their general PTO bucket but ensure that their staff understands," says Freshman. "They should know they can take their PTO for a multitude of reasons. You don't have to have the flu to take a sick day." She also notes that HR representatives need to look at how policies are worded and make sure mental health topics are included in how qualified sick time and PTO are defined.

Creating the space for critical conversations

Freshman notes that HR serves as a critical partner in providing information about and access to key benefits, as well as ensuring training and encouraging openness on these issues. They need to help create the context in which real conversations can occur. Taking a closer look at how to support your team's individual needs can give you critical context as you move forward and work to build a business culture that truly supports positive employee mental health.

Download and share these helpful resources for leaders and employees:

Also, register and replay an impactful vsession led by Freshman during the Women at Work 2022 Virtual Summit. Visit this page and find the session titled, "Addressing Employee Burnout and Mental Wellness."

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