Mental Health

“What can I do?” about mental health in the workplace

The Labor Department wants everyone at work to open up about mental health.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

After over two years spent struggling to endure a pandemic that continues to impact many aspects of daily life, many Americans are feeling isolated. According to the 2022 The State of Mental Health in America report from Mental Health America, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health, nearly 5% of adults report experiencing serious thoughts of suicide, an increase of 664,000 people from the previous year. And according to the report, over half of adults (56%) with mental illness do not receive treatment, leaving more than 27 million Americans with mental illnesses untreated.

The campaign. The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) launched a new campaign at the end of March dubbed “Mental Health at Work: What Can I Do?” The campaign featured a PSA and a host of resources aimed at reducing the stigma often associated with discussing mental health at work. The core message? Every person in an organization, from managers to coworkers, has a role to play in promoting every employee’s mental health and well-being.

In addition to the PSA, the campaign provides an outreach tool kit with language to help companies promote mental-health practices, workplace mental-health resources, including a resource library, and a guide for company leaders and managers to support employee mental health.

The big picture. A 2021 BuzzFeed article featured stories from workers who had negative perceptions of how mental illness was addressed at work. One respondent said, “I feel like the ‘we are here for you’ comments my admin make are just empty promises. When they said it last year, it sent my anxiety into a tailspin because I know they can’t truly handle my anxiety and PTSD.”

Taryn Williams, the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy at ODEP, believes workplaces are becoming more accepting of mental illness and the subject isn’t as off-limits as it used to be, in part because mental illness can impact anyone.

“We’re hearing that mental health is a concern, especially in light of the stresses brought on by the pandemic,” Williams told HR Brew. “I can say that we’re hearing this as an issue across all industries and companies of all sizes…It’s everywhere.”

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In a blog post about the campaign, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh discussed his personal journey with mental illness (specifically, substance abuse) and the importance of having support at work. “I learned firsthand that a supportive environment can make all the difference—to both employees with mental-health conditions and the employers who want to keep them productive and on the job,” Walsh wrote.

Be on the lookout. Williams says that part of the campaign is to educate employers and employees alike that “mental health is health” and encourages leaders to keep an eye out for signs of distress. “We really encourage HR professionals and supervisors to be in conversation with their employees, even as the workplace has shifted.” Williams said. “Staying in contact with members of their team, inquiring about their work and how things are going. Engaging in those sorts of conversations, even if you don’t have that direct interaction, can be so critical for understanding where an employee might be struggling.”

Williams stresses that leadership plays a role in normalizing discussions surrounding mental health. “When they [leaders] talk about the experiences that they’re having, when they are open to disclosing some of the struggles that they might have, that can play a significant role in creating an environment that is more inclusive,” Williams said.

Zoom out. Williams also hopes employers remember that mental illness is a form of disability that can and should be talked about at work.

“Workplaces can become more inclusive of all people with disabilities, including people with mental-health conditions, and we really want to use this moment to continue to break down stigma and myths, and take the conversation about mental health to a different level,” Williams said.—KP

If you or someone you know is in crisis, free and confidential 24-hour support is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.