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Guest opinion: Policies and priorities employers can set to ‘Make It OK’ for employees seeking mental health support


Submitted by Jami Haberl, executive director of the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, and Marcy Klipfel, chief engagement officer at Businessolver

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year it comes at a crucial time in the public discourse around mental illness.

As we have endured the pandemic — and the isolation and anxiety that came with it — raising awareness and action around mental health has taken on a larger part of the national conversation. From the toll the pandemic took on our mental well-being to the reaction we have seen in real time with the “Great Resignation,” mental health has been on the forefront of the public’s minds and headlines alike. As many employees have migrated to new positions with better pay and flexibility, employers have the opportunity to make real change in their organizations by at last eliminating the stigma and amplifying support in seeking help for mental health struggles.

According to data from Businessolver’s 2022 State of Workplace Empathy Mental Health Report, more employees and HR professionals are seeking out workplace support to manage their mental health than ever before. However, more than half are still not comfortable doing so. In a time when mental health is at the forefront of social conscience, many are still afraid to seek help from their workplace in managing mental health struggles.

A surprising 66% of employees say employers still view people with mental health issues as “weak” or “a burden,” and 59% of employees believe reaching out to HR or their manager about a mental health issue could negatively affect their job security. Furthermore, 66% of employees believe their employer would hold back a job offer if a candidate disclosed a mental health issue.
So what can be done? When so much time is spent at work, what can workplaces do to support employee mental health?

Employers must make a genuine effort to Make It OK.

Make It OK is a community campaign in Iowa to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness. Organizations can get involved by signing up as a registered Make It OK workplace at MakeItOK.org/Iowa.

What does it look like to Make It OK? Businessolver’s 2022 State of Workplace Empathy offers insight into what employees want most from workplace mental health supports:

Flexible work hours
. An overwhelming majority (94%) of employees want flexible work hours to help them support their mental health; in fact, 52% of employees say the loss of flexibility is their greatest fear about returning to in-person work. However, just 33% of employers offer this level of flexibility, Businessolver finds.

The option to work remotely. 
While 91% of workers are interested in the option for remote work, it’s only open to 25% of employees.

Mental health vacation days.
 Most employees (85%) want specified mental health vacation days, but only 20% of surveyed employers have them available.

Employee assistance programs. 
Among employees, 88% would like a program that provides supportive, diagnostic, referral and counseling treatment services; yet far fewer (29%) workplaces have such an EAP in place.

Closing the gap between the benefits employees are seeking and what employers provide is a meaningful first step in building a workplace culture that supports mental well-being. Beyond these specific workplace policies, though, there’s even more that employers can do:

Make mental health a top-down priority
. Businessolver’s 2022 Empathy data shows that CEOs are willing to reach out to someone at work for support with managing mental health. By amplifying that willingness, CEOs can better role-model empathy for their workforce.

Embrace flexibility and empower employees to use it
. Embracing flexibility as an intentional part of the culture can help employees feel more in control of their time and their lives.

Gather employee feedback
. Listen to employees and use their input to create quality workplace benefits and policies.

Employers have a unique opportunity to fight stigma and support their employees by creating more empathetic workplaces. We all have a role to play to normalize mental health at work and in our communities. By working with their employees, organizations can create supportive workplaces that not only allow their staff to thrive and feel better mentally but do their best work every day and breed genuine loyalty in the process.

Photo: Jami Haberl (top), executive director of the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, and Marcy Klipfel, chief engagement officer at Businessolver

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