Mental Health affects employees in every organization at every level, yet it encompasses diagnosable conditions that are not talked about, or sometimes even acknowledged, as prevalently as other medical conditions.  According to Harvard Business Review, “Despite the fact that over 200 million workdays are lost due to mental health conditions each year ($16.8 billion in employee productivity), mental health remains a taboo subject.”  A study performed by Mind Share Partners, SAP and Qualtrics around the stigma in the United States, found that an employer cannot only create policies or lean on EAPs (employee assistance programs) to drive the change. Instead, the study shows that the resources resulting in the most meaningful change are training for both managers and employees, as well as workplace cultural shifts to support more acceptance.  To begin creating a culture of mental wellness and health, an employer’s approach to how they engage these discussions is critical. 

The data shows that these conversations need to begin at the top. In 2017, a post that included a CEO’s response to an employee using a sick day to address their mental health led to  a viral reaction. The overwhelmingly positive response was about the disbelief and appreciation of this employer’s support of an employee bringing their reality to work. This led to discussions on the employer role in creating a safe work environment including the need to remove the stigma from being able to talk about mental health and wellness in that environment. Fast forward ahead to today in 2021 and the challenges arising with COVID, as well as diversity and inclusion only serving to heighten awareness for this ongoing need for employer intervention.

Employees however continue to be wary of sharing their real stories. Employee Benefit News writes, “47% of employees fear negative consequences – being denied a raise or promotion – if they talk about their work stress", according to a new survey from Joblist. This article echoes the sentiment, that now, as much as any time in the past, employers have room to build a culture of open communication from the top down. 

In an organization, this can begin with the basics; regular 1x1s or check-ins with individuals – using some of this time to just talk and really get to know your staff and to know that individual's needs and experiences. At this level, employers can create safety with normalizing real discussions as part of your everyday work activity and expectation. This removes the factor of unknown, allowing uncertainty to lessen and employees can gain feelings of safety through regular experience with their leadership. Staff can learn it is okay to not be okay and to ask for help.

We, the team at Sun Life, have found three R’s to be critical in these cultural shifts:

  • Regular conversations engaged consistently
  • Real and personal discussions that ask “how are you”, and
  • Require these 1x1 conversations at all levels as part of what’s expected

Taking time to imbed these three R’s into your workplace will begin your journey to a positive culture that engages employees in sharing their needs for mental wellness. We have seen firsthand how making space for mental wellness from the top down can help the entire organization to grow and thrive. 

This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical or legal advice, or a substitute for that advice.

Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, Wellesley Hills, MA. For New York group policies: Sun Life and Health Insurance Company (U.S.), Lansing, MI