Employers face a dilemma when employees do not utilize behavioral health services offered—even when the obvious need is there. They wonder: we have built it—why don’t they come?
The reasons are complex from the perspective of the employee. Since stigma and discrimination are still very prevalent in society and workplaces, the most common perception of employees who have behavioral health challenges is one of weakness. They are viewed as a burden to the employer and the team, and not considered viable for promotion. People protect themselves from this negatively perceived identity by avoiding services.
The solution is clear for employers: Build a safe environment in which accessing behavioral health services are seen positively by employees.
Here are four strategic elements required to building this safe environment:
- Proactively address stigma.
- How do you think about people who have mental health or addiction issues?
- What stories are repeated in the narrative of your organization about employees who have had issues?
- Are there any success stories shared in which employees have been supported during times of personal difficulty?
- Do stories predominate that are about employees being fired, escorted out by security, or going off on sick leave and never heard from again?
- Do you hear jokes, derogatory comments, or insults (“you are so bipolar today”) that are part of the culture?
An employee who has behavioral health challenges hears these things too and is likely to engage in self- protection by avoiding services that by definition put them into the stigmatized group.
Action: Invite experienced speakers into your organization who openly identify as having mental health or addiction challenges and are trained to speak to workplace audiences. Alternatively, bring in expert training that is proven for stigma reduction through the use of personal stories.
- Prioritize emotional intelligence (EI) as a core competency for managers.
EI allows people to manage their own thoughts and emotions while being aware that other people have different thoughts and emotions. This communication art and skill is valuable for all employee interactions especially when an employee is struggling with behavioral health issues. When a manager or HR consultant uses these principles, the employee is more likely to feel understood and can respond positively to assistance and a referral to resources.
Action: Provide training for all managers and HR consultants to increase their emotional intelligence. Then, require standards of competency in EI from these people who heavily shape the workplace environment.
- Invest in training.
Train your workforce about mental health in a workplace context that includes strategies to build a psychologically healthy and safe environment, according to position. Employees are de-incentivized to access services if they are experiencing significant workplace stressors and are thinking: Why should I bother to get treatment when every day I come to a workplace that is toxic for me?
Provide training where:
- Managers learn effective performance management tools that work for employees who are struggling for any reason, and especially when behavioral health is part of the picture.
- Senior leaders and unions learn how to strategically address organizational psychological health and safety. This will benefit all employees and particularly those who have behavioral health challenges.
- All staff learn how to build a socially supportive environment that protects everyone’s mental health while providing a positive place for employees who are struggling with behavioral health issues to recover and thrive.
- Examine accommodation practices and narratives.
- How safe is it in your organization to request or accept accommodation?
- Are accommodations seen as a weakness, not being a team player, or a nuisance?
- Are accommodations a career liability?
- How accommodation is perceived plays a role in how and if employees seek assistance.
Action: Review your accommodation policies, processes and practices through the lens of an employee who has a behavioral health challenge. Is the policy easy to follow with clear guidelines about who does what? Would an employee who is afraid of disclosure be able to participate in an accommodation discussion?
Normalize accommodation requests by regularly voicing to all staff that the organization is committed to providing effective accommodations because the organization values health, fairness, equity and inclusion.