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Mental health in the workplace: 5 best practices and laws to know

The stigma associated with mental health issues can be challenging to address in the workplace. Many people carry subconscious biases toward mental health issues that can lead to serious workplace problems such as discrimination and hurt an employee’s wellbeing.

Additionally, those suffering from mental health issues in the workplace might choose to keep their personal challenges to themselves out of fear of being labeled weak or incompetent to perform their job duties – which can stand in the way of them seeking help.

Here are five steps companies can take to effectively support employee mental health in the workplace.

1. Educate your workforce

Experiencing mental health issues – like anxiety, stress, grief, trauma, depression and burnout – in more common than you may realize.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year.

When you consider these numbers, chances are likely that someone in your workforce may be suffering from mental health issues. If that’s the case, it has the potential to not only affect the employee in question – but also a good portion of your workforce, team morale, productivity and other areas that impact overall business performance.

There are four subtle signs you can watch for to identify an employee struggling with emotional health in the workplace. They may:

  1. Be more likely to miss work (increased absenteeism)
  2. Lack efficiency and show poor decision making skills
  3. Have gaps in their productivity, resulting in poor job performance
  4. Experience strained interpersonal relationships with coworkers

By helping your employees understand the importance of mental health at work, and that common concerns can be quickly addressed, you can cultivate an accepting environment that reduces stigma and minimizes the potential for long-term problems.

2. Promote good mental health practices

Managers and employees who are educated on how mental health issues can affect the workplace will be better prepared to offer help, follow wise protocol and avoid developing stigmatizing prejudices.

Here are six proactive initiatives to address mental health in the workplace:

  • Offer lunch-and-learn programs on the facts about mental health.
  • Establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides counseling and mental health services and support. Make sure your employees know about it and how to use it.
  • Train managers on how to spot risk factors and signs of stress, fatigue, anxiety or depression.
  • Have an open-door policy for employees to share when they’re going through a difficult time at home or are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Work with managers on how to help their employees balance their stressors and embrace a healthy work-life balance.
  • Include information on how to address mental health in the workplace in your employee handbook.

3. Treat mental health hand-in-hand with other wellness initiatives

We’re all aware that we have choices when it comes to our physical health. To proactively protect ourselves, we’re consistently encouraged to get free flu shots, stop smoking, eat healthy – the list goes on and on. Mental health and wellness should be no different.

It’s important to be proactive for emotional wellness, too. By addressing mental health conditions in the workplace as you would any other wellness topic, you can help open the door to productive solutions. Talking openly about commonplace mental health concerns is an important part of a healthy work environment. Don’t sweep it under the rug.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Many types of mental health issues are brought on by challenging life events and are not permanent.
  • Employers who are knowledgeable and open with their employees about difficult issues create an atmosphere of trust (which ultimately leads to happier employees and greater productivity).
  • Businesses that encourage work-life balance and make employee wellbeing a priority not only reduce the risk of employee burnout, but also experience lower turnover rates with fewer sick days reported.

4. Focus on stress management, not stigmatization

Stress can manifest in many different ways, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions about someone’s mental health in the workplace. If you are concerned about an employee or peer’s emotional health, it’s best to start with an honest conversation without making assumptions or labeling the behavior.

It is important to be direct and upfront. Be specific and to the point.

For example, you might say, “I noticed you yelled at Mary during the meeting and left the room abruptly. Is there something going on that you can tell me about?”

A good starting point is to suggest they ask themselves these questions:

  • What is causing my stress?
  • Do I feel that it is temporary?
  • Do I need to ask for a change in my workload or schedule?
  • Where is this coming from?
  • Should I seek help?

If they indicate that they need additional help for work-related stress, be open to their suggestions about what they need. Be supportive and nonjudgmental. Let them know there are resources to help them, and put them in contact with your HR professional or EAP. Remember that mental health concerns are to be kept confidential.

5. Create a healthy workplace culture of trust

Your employees are your greatest asset, and they need to know they’re valued and supported. Nothing communicates this better than creating a balanced culture where people feel that they matter.

When you have a strong company culture, you’ll foster an atmosphere of grace and mutual trust within your business that reinforces the importance of mental health awareness and acceptance.

Employees who feel valued are more likely to have open, honest conversations and genuinely care about each other, their work and your business.

Here’s what you can do to nurture a supportive company culture:

  • Have an open door policy.
  • Let your employees know how their work contributes to the greater good of your business.
  • Recognize people for their unique accomplishments.
  • Don’t tolerate gossip, including name calling.
  • Be trustworthy.
  • Develop a mission statement that supports and values your employees as your number-one asset.
  • Communicate and reinforce your culture regularly.
  • Realize your words are powerful; they should be intentional and thoughtful.
  • Demonstrate your culture from the top – lead by example.

We all face difficult times in life and could encounter mental health concerns at any time. Being proactive and making sure your employees have the support they need at work can be a big part of their successful recovery.

If an employee requests to take paid time off to handle a mental health concern, make an effort to grant it. Taking earned leave doesn’t require a medical diagnosis or utilization of the days allowed under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for serious health conditions.

But what if the employee is asking for time off due to a chronic or serious diagnosed bout of mental health complications? It’s wise to look at what kind of reasonable accommodations can be implemented to assist the employee to meet the essential function of their job.

Mental Health and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in the workplace due to disabilities or illness. It defines someone as having a disability if their impairment limits a major life activity or if there is a record of impairment.

  • A reasonable accommodation, including requests for time off, doesn’t have to be expensive for a company. Something as simple as restructuring the workday, moving start times, chunking up breaks or providing flexible work arrangements could be all that is needed. These smaller accommodations may lead to fewer requests for lengthy leaves.
  • Employers can also look at additional, optional ways to create a more peaceful and supportive work environment for workers with mental health disabilities. Referring them to the employee assistance program (EAP) and free or low-cost resources through the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) can make a big difference in workplace satisfaction and management of mental health symptoms.

What if a worker can’t regularly meet the requirements of their job, even when given reasonable accommodations and an allowable and reasonable amount of leave under the ADA?

Using Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for Mental Health

When the accommodation that a worker seeks includes time away from the office, the topic of FMLA may come into play. How can a manager or HR leader know what leave of absence qualifies for FMLA and what doesn’t?

While the topic of mental health policies is a complicated one that may require the advice of a legal or HR consultant, here are the quick FMLA facts:

  • One or two days away, from time to time, and requested in advance, may be a good use for unused flex time, sick leave or even banked vacations days (and handled in the same manner as common illnesses or injury).
  • If the absence is greater than three days and if certain criteria are met, qualified FMLA may be considered.
  • Not all companies have to offer FMLA leave. Those with fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius aren’t bound by FMLA laws.
  • The employee must have worked 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months to qualify for leave.
  • The leave is usually unpaid, although certain states may cover time away with partial disability plans or additional private insurance compensation.
  • Leave may be taken intermittently, a few days at a time or all at once – totaling no more than 12 weeks off in a one-year time period.

An employee will typically be restored back to the same or an equivalent position when the employee returns from family and medical leave. An employee who does not return to work at the end of an authorized leave should create an opportunity for the employer and employee to engage in the interactive process to see if any reasonable accommodation could return the employee to work.

In the event an employee’s position with the company is affected by a decision or event not related to the employee’s leave of absence (e.g., job elimination due to a reduction in force), the employee will be affected to the same extent as if they were not on leave. Certain “key employees,” as defined under the FMLA, may not be eligible to be restored to the same or an equivalent position after leave if doing so would cause substantial and grievous economic injury to the operations of the assigned company.

Finally, if you find that your top-tiered talent is requesting more time away due to stressful work obligations, a formal sabbatical program may be a perk to consider offering.

The laws governing employment can be cumbersome and overwhelming. Don’t leave your business exposed to undue risk. Educate yourself on the basics by downloading our complimentary e-book: Employment Law: Are you putting your business at risk?