/ Mental Health / Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace with New Digital Technologies

Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace with New Digital Technologies

Anna Mittag

For HR professionals who care about employees’ mental well-being in the workplace, the proliferation of mobile devices, digital distractions, and social media channels are truly the proverbial double-edged sword. Consider that the same technologies that facilitate cyber-bullying, online fat-shaming, YouTube videos with how-to advice on recreational drug use and even websites that encourage suicide and disordered eating behaviors, can also form the core of a company’s support online for depressed, stressed out, divorcing and even addicted employees. Yes, digital distractions can wreak havoc on your company’s productivity, yet digital wellness tools can also significantly increase employee productivity and combat presenteeism and absenteeism.

For decades, traditional employee assistance programs have hired speakers – on topics from nutrition to stress reduction – and brought them face-to-face with dozens or even hundreds of employees at one time in an auditorium to combat, say, stress and depression in the office. Although that mass gathering can reduce the stigma by its very public nature, that paradigm made it hard for HR to help the individual employee.

On the other hand, a challenge for employers delivering mental health content via a digital platform is this: the very nature of online training encourages confidentiality and anonymity, which you’d expect would help combat the stigma employees face in seeking help for mental health issues. But when each individual employee secretly has access to wellness videos, does that render the issue of mental health in the workplace invisible as well? For example, our company creates highly-promoted company-wide mental health campaigns that are visible to 70,000 employees across an organization. These resources are consumed privately by employees, sometimes along with a loved one. How do you balance being public enough to show the company’s commitment to bring mental health out of the shadows, while still respecting the privacy of your employees?

Most HR professionals now recognize that addiction and other mental health issues are “family diseases,” not limited to the individual employee.  If an EAP or HR-driven program cares only for the affected employee but provides no access to mental health content for spouses, partners, and family members, the impact of that mental health information will be diluted. Unlike traditional face-to-face workshops about nutrition or stress, the newer digital platforms enable HR staff to encourage employees to share information with loved ones.

But wait, there’s more: Love it or hate it, the blurring of the line between personal and professional social media channels and emails – combined with the trend of millions of employees working remotely and from home after hours – makes digitized resources on mental health more porous, moving from the workplace to the home and back again.

I’ve been asked by skeptics (you know who you are) if employers provide access to wellness content online, will employees be less likely to avail themselves of vital one-on-one sessions with, say, a psychiatrist? What we’re finding from employers is this: their employees still go to that psychiatrist, but as a result of online mental health content, they’re educated in advance and going into that session primed. This may save the employer a considerable sum of money because a prepped employee likely requires fewer sessions to achieve a resolution.  In short, we’re not talking teletherapy; we’re talking about online education that complements face-to-face therapy.

You know that the trends your IT staff are freaking out about right now probably include cloud computing, cyber hacking and security, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. So what trends should HR professionals be watching for online? Here are my predictions:

  • Mental Health Content Will Be Curated: If your employees need mental health-related information about divorce, addiction, suicide, sexual assault, and depression, why not simply send them to YouTube’s billions of videos? Well, I’ve got billions of reasons for that, which starts with YouTube being as unreliable and chaotic as the Wild West. It’s impossible for employees and employers to know which videos are reputable and credible. There’s nothing wrong with employees searching for advice on, say, Web MD, but our industry is moving toward curated digital platforms that ensure an employer’s content is updated, trustworthy and understandable.
  • Side-by-Side Consumption: When mental health information goes digital, anyone can watch it – accompanied by anyone. For example, when my mother’s husband experienced a cardiac episode, neither my mother nor I knew anything about it. Well, you can’t drag your mother to a workshop on cardiac health at your workplace, but I could watch an online video with her. It’s relatively easy to find content aimed at one employee, but far more difficult to find video content that suggests how to support a family member or loved one who is suffering from mental illness. We’ve heard that managers are opening up tough conversations with employees who are struggling with stress or depression by watching a video together as a conversation starter.
  • Proactive, Rather than Reactive, Content: Most clients institute an EAP on suicide prevention or eating disorders when a problem surfaces, and the company, with the best of intentions, reacts with a “pop-up” campaign to address that issue. Alternatively, a remote employee may call an EAP’s hotline or make an appointment with a therapist only when they’ve reached the point of no return and are in crisis mode. The future is clear: HR departments will be encouraging employees to access mental health wellness content digitally before they’re in crisis.
  • Snackable Wellness Training: Traditional wellness programs often herded employees to an auditorium or conference area, where they all watched a presentation on nutrition or wellness. Today, few employees have the bandwidth to devote 60-90 minutes to a wellness workshop; the collective attention span has shrunken. With wellness videos, employees can spend a quick 10 minutes during a commute on the subway on their phone, laptop or tablet. The trend is 5-10 minute “snackable” bites about mental health that fit into the frantic pace of our work lives.
  • The Comfort of Online Chats: HR professionals know that employees in crisis often feel they’re the only ones experiencing addiction, family strife, and other issues. Ironically, it’s the very anonymity of online chatrooms which can solve that. My company provides access to expert psychiatrists and other professionals each month for Q & A webchats, where employees dealing with panic attacks or other anxiety disorders can participate in real-time and ask questions. Others suffering from the same condition or dealing with the same problem can be comforted by seeing they are not alone. That’s revelatory, because of the most important things an HR professional can do is normalize employees’ experiences by using new digital tools to make it clear to employees that if they suffer from a mental health issue, they’re in good company, as some their peers are probably suffering from similar issues.
  • The Digital Generation Wants Content Digitally: As Baby Boomers retire in corporate America, we’re seeing the emerging generation of managers coming from the GenX and Millennial generations. These young managers grew up on digital and, most importantly, are far more comfortable and open about discussing issues like addiction, LGBT identity and mental health than the previous generation, which hadn’t been raised on the intimacy of Facebook revelations. The coming wave of employees will want their wellness content driven by their devices, and they won’t be shy about discussing previously unmentionable topics.

At a time when Facebook, Google, and other online sites are struggling with data mining, hacking, and privacy issues, here’s one final caveat for employers exploring the value of mental well-being sites and videos: ensure that your employees know that by accessing digital wellness content, no personal information is captured about them. When employees register for a mental health webchat on our platform, for example, they don’t reveal a name or even an email address. They just click on a link and remain anonymous to their co-workers and employers. And if they watch a video about, perhaps, treatment for opioid addiction or anorexia with their teenage son or daughter, the only people who can know that they watched that video would be their son or daughter and the employee themselves.

There’s a delicate balance between the implicit endorsement of the wellness content by you as an employer, while still making it clear that there’s no peeking behind the curtain at which employees are accessing mental health videos. One thing HR executives can count on: the era of YouTube, Google, and Facebook has forever changed how easily employees can now access well-being content. Now it’s up to employers to ensure that the content being accessed is accurate. Your employee’s mental health and your company’s bottom line may depend on it.


About the Author

Anna Mittag is vice president of operations for LifeSpeak, a digital wellness platform that offers employees 1,500 videos, podcasts, and tip sheets, available 24/7 from any computer or mobile device. Learn more at https://lifespeak.com or follow them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lifespeak?lang=en You can reach the author, Anna, at annamittag@lifespeak.com

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