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Mental Health As Part of Corporate Wellness Programs

Judi Hennebry Wise

A woman on a couch talking to a therapist, part of a whole person approach to wellness.

Today’s corporate wellness programs tend to focus on helping employees improve their health by creating clinical improvement initiatives around certain measures such as blood pressure, Body Mass Index (BMI), cholesterol, glucose, and smoking cessation. Each of these measures, when achieved and maintained can help prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other illnesses that drive healthcare costs for employers. Therefore, it is not surprising that an increasing number of employers are offering employees incentives to achieve clinical benchmarks. Incentives often include lowering healthcare premiums, reducing co-pays, and increasing costs for smokers.

Often missing from corporate wellness programs, however, is a focus on mental health and emotional wellness. While mental health is not as easily measured as blood pressure or cholesterol, it deserves equal attention especially when considering the costs associated with poor mental and emotional health. Productivity loss, absenteeism, job abandonment, and higher turnover are often directly linked to poor mental health. For example, research shows that people with symptoms of depression have a fivefold or greater increase in time lost from work compared to those without symptoms of depression according to Jeffrey Kahn M.D., and Alan Langlieb, M.D., in their book, Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace: A Handbook for Organizations and Clinicians.

Employers can begin to focus on mental health by ensuring that employees have access to mental health benefits including an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs are useful in that they can provide referrals to mental health professionals and other services while maintaining strict standards of confidentiality. Employers with mental health benefits are at a significant advantage over those who do not supply such benefits in that they are likely to have lower incidents of job burnout, onsite violence, and work place injury.

Employers should complete an assessment of their organizational culture before implementing any mental health programs. They need to acknowledge when there are cultural drivers that are influencing people’s resiliency and their ability to be emotionally well at work. For example, one employer may require that employees work 80 hours a week which leaves little down time, while another may discourage their employees from taking earned vacation time. Such work norms, rarely overtly stated but rather implied fail to provide employees with opportunities to find healthy balance in their lives and may leave them feeling stressed out, discouraged, angry, and unhappy, undermining one’s emotional wellness. At the onset, companies need to be certain that their culture and work practices can support the mental health and emotional needs of its employees. They must communicate that they care about each employee as a person and that they are committed to providing the best working environment possible.

Employers can suggest that their employees complete a health risk assessment (HRA) which often includes questions pertaining to mental health. In 2011, PriMed Management Consulting, located in San Ramon, California asked its 480 employees to complete a health risk assessment to better understand its health issues. Ninety-three percent of employees completed the HRA and the results were surprising. They showed that employees were at the greatest risk for depression, stress, and obesity. The wellness team then built their program around the three risk areas. To address depression, they sponsored education sessions addressing finding a therapist, women and depression, and overcoming negative thinking, among others. They also created and produced four emotional wellness videos for employees on topics including writing to heal, the power of forgiveness, the power of meditation, and grieving.

To address stress, PriMed hosted education sessions on job burnout and stress management, started an after-work exercise program (exercise is shown to decrease stress), asked employees to submit stress logs, and invited employees to guided imagery sessions. To address obesity, they created a 10-week long weight management program called Lose to Win, held cooking demonstrations for healthy eating, and promoted onsite exercise. Without the HRA data, PriMed would hot have been aware of the mental health issues of its employees nor of its physical challenges.

Employers are best served to expose their employees to the realities of mental health issues that can impact one’s ability to be focused and productive. These issues could include stress, drug use, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other mood disorders. Wellness leaders can launch awareness and education campaigns of these illnesses using the latest social media and other tools to help people find helpful resources. When  employees experience symptoms such as the desire to isolate, withdrawal from normal activities, physical aches and pains, irritability, and low tolerance of others, having a resource to turn to for help can likely defuse a potentially serious situation.  By providing educational opportunities and enhancing awareness of mental illnesses through discussion, organizations are de-stigmatizing those very illnesses which keep employees silent in their pain.

Wellness programs may offer peer-to-peer support groups for mental health conditions. One recent study suggested that for lasting behavior change, people are best served to not only set attainable goals but to participate in small groups. When people come together with similar experiences, they are less likely to feel so alone. In small groups, people are more likely to openly discuss topics such as how to cope with the pressures of work, how to improve job performance, or how to deal with a demanding boss. Peer support groups are not to be therapy sessions but they can be therapeutic for participants.
There are risks associated with corporate wellness programs giving equal attention to mental health. First, employees may not attend educational sessions or other such gatherings for fear of being “outed”.

Unfortunately, shame is often associated with mental illness in the workplace. Employees may be fearful that others will not perceive them to be competent, capable, or a solid performer. The best way to mitigate the risk of low participation is regularly and visibly offer sessions which signals that the company is interested and open to the topic. Another way to mitigate risk is to ask organizational leaders to talk about mental health issues in public forums.

Second, employees could find the discussions about mental health to be too intrusive and too “Big Brother”. Mental health is an intensely personal topic for some people.  It can be even more private than some physical health topics. To mitigate the sensitivity risk, wellness leaders can set rules of engagement at events. For example, rules around not judging others, not interrupting when someone is speaking, and no cross-talk may help establish a feeling of “emotional safety” for the sensitive employee.

Third, there is a risk that once attention is paid to mental health, an organization will incur costs associated with the use of mental health services and pharmaceutical usage of psychotropic drugs increase.  Employers need to be mindful that when people seek treatment, they are less likely to have more costly hospital stays, and are less likely to experience other chronic conditions that could drive increased costs in the long term.

Corporate wellness programs will continue to evolve. My hope is that more attention will be paid to employee mental health and that the stigma associated with it will dissipate. By addressing mental health issues and emotional wellness, employers are addressing the total health of an employee when combined with programs for clinical measure achievement. That makes everyone stronger, more productive, and happier.

About The Author

Judi Hennebry Wise has over twenty years of experience in helping companies with performance improvement and change. Currently, she is the Director of Education Services for Hill Physicians Medical Group, the largest Independent Practice Association in northern California. She has led their award-winning corporate wellness program for the past nine years.

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