May 26, 2021

Three Signs that Your Workplace Culture Values Mental Health

The Nava Team

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we're continuing the conversation on this essential component of healthcare with the last entry in our series focused on the relationship between workplace culture and employee mental health. Check out last week's blog for our Ultimate Guide to Mental Health Benefits, including tips from leading mental health providers and Fortune 100 HR leaders.

So your employer has decided to make mental health a priority. You've done the research on why it's essential (both for your employees and your business) and you've built out a benefits offering that actually works.

But your commitment to wellness doesn't have to end there.

Here's the truth: a healthy mindset may begin with mental healthcare, but it's cultivated in the day-to-day. And if your teams are spending 40 hours a week at work, then it's safe to assume that their job has the potential to impact their headspace.

So if you want to maximize your investment in employee mental health, it's time to stop thinking inside the "benefits box" and start looking at your internal culture.

We're not going to lie: culture change is not easy. It's not as simple as an increased budget or revamped resources. It requires a real commitment — but that commitment is exactly what makes it so powerful.

A supportive, healthy work culture is the result of ongoing effort. It's little moments that add up. It's feeling comfortable with your team, even when faced with a challenge. It's knowing your manager has your back (and you have their respect). It's feeling assured that you can bring your whole self to work and you'll be accepted (or even celebrated) for who you are.

Plus, research shows that employees want to see greater consideration for mental health in the workplace; in a 2019 study, 86% of respondents said that company culture should support mental health.

This will look different for each employer, and there may not be an end-all-be-all "finish line" to prove you've built a healthy culture.

But after speaking with experts from leading mental health providers and Fortune 100 companies, we noticed three common threads that signal that you're doing something right.

Here are three signs that your workplace prioritizes mental health — and some expert tips to level up your culture.

1. Your employees feel comfortable bringing up mental health, without fear of shame or stigma.

If you want to encourage employees to prioritize their mental health, you need to normalize it first. That starts by talking about it.

Across the board, every mental health expert we spoke to emphasized the importance of clear and open communication.

You should start by framing mental health as just another part of overall health — and similar to physical health, you don't want to wait until there's a problem to take action. "Everyone needs to take steps to protect this part of your health even if you are experiencing no issues today," writes Kelley Elliott, Managing Director of Global Rewards at Delta (and Nava Advisor). "Think of it as a preventive measure to staying healthy!"

To be clear, normalizing mental health in your workplace won't necessarily mean that your employees will disclose their personal details to HR, their manager, or their peers — and that's okay! As long as they know they can talk about it (if they want to), then you've done your job.

Here are some tips to help these discussions run smoothly:

Make it clear that stigma has no place in mental health — or your workplace.

Unfortunately, there's still a huge amount of misinformation and stigma out there. This perpetuates feelings of shame around experiencing mental health issues, and makes people less likely to get the treatment they may need.

"There still remains a stigma where a good many people are embarrassed to access mental health care," Marcus Osborne, SVP of Walmart Health (and Nava Advisor) emphasized. "HR leaders (and executives overall) have a huge role to play in reducing that stigma and reducing the friction to employees accessing mental and behavioral health services."

That's why it's so important to be unapologetic, clear, and honest in all your discussions on mental health. Stigma hides in the grey areas, so leave no room for it.

To combat stigma, Kara Lulley from the telemedicine provider First Stop Health highlighted two key points that should guide your messaging:

  1. Every human experiences a mental health event at some point in their lives, and
  2. Experiencing a low point of mental health does not negate the value and contributions an employee brings to their job.

"At the end of the day, companies who effectively communicate these two truths will have the best chance of delivering meaningful mental health support to their workforces."

Normalize talking the talk from the top down.

Talking about mental health isn't always easy, but it's an essential step towards normalizing it. And this message is much more powerful if it comes from the top.

"I've seen incredible engagement from companies on mental health-related initiatives when they're able to get a few executive sponsors to publicly share their experiences," writes Amber Lyon from the mental healthcare provider Spring Health. "Doing this can be vulnerable and scary, but if HR leaders can identify a few cultural leaders in their organization who are open to talking about their struggles and how the company's benefits supported them then it can break down stigmas within the organization and create a safer space for people to thrive."

And the data speaks for itself, Lulley emphasized. "One study showed that 62% of employees said they’d feel more comfortable talking about mental health if someone in a leadership role spoke openly about it while a recent survey showed that that 53% of employees don’t use benefits simply because they don’t feel it’s socially acceptable to do so."

It's up to the managers to take action here — and this should be authentic to their unique leadership style. It could mean that they are transparent about taking mental health days. Or they could share stories about mental health's impact on their own work in one-on-one meetings. Or they could lead a workshop on mental health in the workplace.

Some managers may appreciate guidance on thoughtfully representing the issue. If you want to offer training and resources, check out Mind Share Partners.

But choose your words wisely.

For employees who aren't familiar with the basics of mental health, this might be their first introduction to these concepts. That means your messaging may be framing their understanding of the subject.

For that reason, you should strive for clear communication and careful word choice.

"For example, we use 'emotional wellbeing' instead of 'mental health,'" writes Federico Ruiz from the wellbeing platform Careots. "With the word 'emotional' it is easy to develop a continuum of positive to negative emotions which then allows us easy ways to provide simple self-care routines to realize more positive emotions and reduce negative emotions."

2. Your teams trust each other and communicate openly.

Psychological safety isn't built overnight, but it's essential to a healthy work culture. This means that your employees feel comfortable and safe with their teams — from collaborating on projects, to sharing and receiving thoughtful feedback, to knowing their manager will understand if they need to take a day off.

"In a time where our work and our personal lives are more intertwined than ever," writes Ilana Mauskopf, Nava's Senior Manager of People Operations, "establishing trust and building an environment where employees feel they can take risks and be vulnerable is crucial.

"Fostering psychological safety in the workplace can reduce anxiety and increase innovation and productivity. Ultimately, it creates a space where employees can do their best work — whether that happens from home or in the office."

Open and honest communication is key, and there's nothing like feeling heard and understood by your team.

Start by incorporating these quick culture edits:

Host internal social events.

The best defense against social isolation? Getting together with colleagues (even if it's still over Zoom for the time being). Whether it's a team happy hour or a company-wide retreat, encouraging socialization can help your employees feel less alone.

Plus, having work-friends gives employees a reason to genuinely enjoy their job — and that pays off for the whole team. According to Gallup, friendship between teammates drives employees to be more active and engaged at work.

Give your teams a way to highlight each others' work.

In a healthy team dynamic, kudos are abundant and free-flowing. Putting the spotlight on your teammates' achievements is an easy way to show how much you value each other's contributions and perspectives.

Not only does this reassure employees that their work matters, but it may also improve their performance. I think we can all agree: When we know our work is appreciated, we're more likely to go above and beyond.

If you want to take it a step further, post the kudos in an open forum that's visible across teams. At Nava, we use a company-wide Slack channel to call out our colleagues' great work. (One added bonus: this boosts transparency across teams.)

Encourage managers to lead with empathy.

Sometimes, life happens. And good managers will understand that.

One prime example — let your teams manage their own schedules and commitments, no questions asked. Because mental health services are often in demand, appointments may only be available during the workday. Being able to make that appointment without hesitation means one less barrier to accessing care.

Osborne explained that letting your employees make these appointments sends a vital message: your mental health is serious, and we take it seriously. "Leadership 'allowing' for employees to access services during the workday is important to creating the right culture around valuing the mental health of the entire team."

3. Your culture and benefits leave room for self care.

Remember that in addition to their workload, your employees are also juggling other obligations. And when things get too hectic, they may neglect one of their most essential responsibilities: taking care of themselves.

Giving your employees the tools, resources, and flexibility to engage in self care and wellness practices — this all lays the foundation for mental health.

These steps will give you a good start:

Don't just let your employees take time off — encourage them to.

Vacation days — everyone needs them, but, unfortunately, not everyone takes them.

In 2020, a record number of employees didn't use their vacation days. But even pre-pandemic, more than half of Americans (55%) left at least some vacation days on the table — adding up to a total of 768 million PTO days left unused in 2018.

Even when they do take a vacay, many feel the pressure to stay signed on while traveling; 2 in 3 Americans report that they still work while on PTO.

Working year-round without breaks? It just isn't sustainable.

Make it abundantly clear that you understand the importance of unplugging by creating space in your schedule and workloads to accommodate time off. (And don't message your vacationing colleagues if you can avoid it.)

To go a step further, many employers opt to enforce a minimum vacation days policy. This helps ensure that everyone is taking at least some time for R&R.

Another way to normalize taking care of your mental health? Offering a paid time off policy that includes mental health days. Just like regular sick days, everyone needs one sometimes.

Support your employees' financial wellness.

Although at first glance this may seem unrelated, research has shown that financial stress can compound feelings of instability or hopelessness. In fact, 73% of Americans consider finances to be their number one source of stress.

(And not for nothing, but mental health services aren't cheap; a single therapy session can cost anywhere from $50 up to $150 on average.)

Offering financial wellness support can make your employees' lives more manageable. This can take the form of 401(K) plans, employer-sponsored student loan support, or FSA plans.

How does this fit into mental wellness, you ask? Being able to plan for the future, build personal resilience, and feel financially secure — that all counts as self care.

Include physical fitness in your benefits and culture.

Although it's not meant to take the place of mental healthcare services, exercise can help clear your mind (and those endorphins don't hurt either!)

Some employers offer reimbursements for employees' gym fees. Others will incorporate fitness into their culture through exercise challenges or group cardio classes. Or it could be as simple as giving your employees the flexibility to take short walks throughout the day.

No matter how you do it, encouraging your employees to get moving can help develop healthier minds, bodies, and habits.

It's one thing to offer mental health benefits. But those benefits can only go so far in supporting a healthy headspace.

Creating a holistic mental health plan that really works, both for your employees and your organization? That's the ultimate goal — and it begins with your culture.

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