For the past couple of years every safety professional has been searching for ways to help their employees deal with the increased level of mental health issues, mostly stemming from the pandemic.
The size of this issue is hard to understate. According to an analysis by the National Center for Health Statistics, 27% reported having symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depression in the past two years. Prior to COVID, that rate was 10.8%.
Employers are stepping up to meet these concerns. In a recent Harris poll, 23% of workers reported that their employer has brought on new mental health services. This same poll found that 67% of employees say that the mental health services offered by employers are beneficial.
However, there is a catch—the continuing effect of the stigma of mental health. A recent survey by JobSage found that three out of five employees don’t feel comfortable discussing their mental health at work. Additionally, 50% are not truthful about taking a mental health day. Why? Many view this as a personal issue and feel revealing mental health issues poses a professional risk, so they opt to just request a less-specific “sick day.”
Resistance to openness in the workplace regarding a sensitive issue like mental health reflects the mindset that has been in place for many of us our entire careers. We were taught to leave our personal life at home and keep details private. We lived two lives: one at work and one at home. If we were facing mental health issues, we dealt with that on our own time, using our own resources, and certainly didn’t bring them to work. If our difficulties dealing with these issues spilled over to work and a compassionate colleague or manager took us aside and asked how they can help, we might reveal a part of what we were going through. But for many of us, it’s been central to our view of ourselves that we can get the job done, no matter what we are facing.
However, many younger workers don’t share these beliefs. They are open about all aspects of their lives, including their health. And most look to employers for help in solving a variety of personal issues, including mental health. The current generation reflects the openness they’ve seen in sports figures, entertainers and business people concerning their mental health.
Since employers are dealing with several generations of workers, adjustments are necessary. One of the first steps is to offer an anti-stigma program at work. A survey done by McKinsey & Company in 2021 found that 23% of employers began an anti-stigma program in 2020.
Once a person has moved past the stigma the next concern is that of privacy. An article from the Harvard Business Review (by Deborah Grayson Riegel) suggests employees need to understand their rights, one of which is there is no requirement to share medical records. “Only refer to the details that you are comfortable with, or that you feel are relevant to your performance and well-being at work," she advises.
As far as repercussions for disclosing this information, Riegel says it is, “illegal for [U.S. employers] to fire you; modify the terms of your contract (including your salary and benefits); or withhold opportunities like promotions, transfers and professional development programs from you for disclosing your mental health conditions.”
And probably the most crucial step is for an employee to find someone within the organization that they trust and are comfortable with and ask for guidance on an approach that fits their needs. Key, however, is understanding that this is a process, and it takes time for some of us to let go of our beliefs.