Mental Health First Aid at Work–Special guest blog by Sue Abderholden, Executive Director, NAMI Minnesota

Mental Health First Aid at Work–Special guest blog by Sue Abderholden, Executive Director, NAMI Minnesota

One in five living in the U.S. will face mental illness or substance abuse in their lives, many during the prime of their working years. Whether fearing the perceived negative attitudes of self-identifying a problem, or simply unaware of how to seek help, more than half will suffer in silence, and 40 percent will simply stay home from work.

Although there’s no “magic wand” for this troubling problem, employers—and employees—can play a meaningful role in moving toward lasting solutions.

Mental Health First Aid at Work, an emerging skills-based and experiential corporate training program, teaches employees to notice and support colleagues experiencing mental health or substance abuse concerns or crises, and to direct them to appropriate support.

Beyond being a socially responsible decision—the right thing to do—it’s good business.

A costly dilemma

The direct costs of untreated or undertreated mental illnesses to employers, which encompass substantial payouts for prescription drugs, medical treatment, and short- and long-term disability, are significant, yet they represent a mere sliver compared to the direct and indirect financial hardship from untreated conditions. Mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders cost employers tens of billions of dollars each year in indirect costs alone: Absenteeism, presenteeism (at work but not fully productive), turnover and costs to train replaced workers.

Employers can take concrete steps today to reduce the impact the work environment has on employees’ mental well-being. Generous payoffs, both cultural and financial, come from fashioning a more mentally healthy workplace. What’s more, such an effort need not demand significant up-front investments of time or money. Ensuring the work-life balance truly remains in balance, equipping managers with tools and support to serve as advocates, and making sure people understand how to use their benefits, makes for a better employee experience.

Stressing the positive

Consider stress: Everyone experiences it, and a hint of pressure can even be healthy. But when work-related anxieties throw up barriers to a happy and productive life, both at and outside work, stress fast becomes a significant health care claims cost driver.

At NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Minnesota, we propose five practical actions employers can take today to lighten the load of stress at work:

  • Promote use of available resources, such as EAPs, wellness programs and other services available through health plans.
  • Build stress reducers into every day, such as chair yoga, walks, stress rooms, and guided meditation.
  • Help employees set boundaries. Make it clear that being available 24/7 or overworking will be neither valued nor rewarded. Promote a culture in which employees know they’ll be supported for saying, “It can wait.”
  • Improve office settings to take advantage of natural light and minimize sound distractions or disturbances. Consider purchasing noise-blocking headphones for those who have mental health issues such as ADHD and PTSD.
  • Hold lunch-and-learn sessions about time management, email management, file management, and stress management. NAMI Minnesota offers free resources on many work-related mental health issues.

Fostering a culture of acceptance and support

Some mental illnesses run deeper than work-related stress, and can lead to significant difficulties as employees find themselves less and less able to cope. Effective employers play an active role in stripping away any negative attitudes associated with seeking help. They communicate to employees that it’s O.K. to talk about challenges they, a family member, a friend, or a co-worker are facing.

And employees who are helping care for someone with serious illness have special needs, too. By adding provisions that take into account caregiving duties (e.g., offering flexible schedules for counseling or doctor visits), you move the needle much closer to improved outcomes for all.

NAMI offers a one-hour workshop program, Good Mental Health in the Workplace: Five Things You Can Do, that focuses on five actions you can take to create a workplace that values good mental health.

Participants will learn how to promote good mental health (including dealing with stress), the common symptoms of a mental illness, how attitudes and language impact people with mental illnesses, and accommodations for a mental illness. This workshop is for small or large organizations, and can be offered over a lunch hour.

For more information

A variety of additional resources are available to help move you toward a more mentally healthy workplace. For starters, you can direct people to the Make It Ok campaign or the NAMI Minnesota website to learn more about mental illnesses, how to talk about it, and to request a speaker. Plus you can explore tools and information available from the following:

Sue Abderholden is Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota