Why Opening the Conversation on Mental Health Is a C-Suite Task

by | May 6, 2022 | Articles | 0 comments

The latest data shows that 81 percent of large companies had some kind of wellness program, as did 53 percent of small firms.

Wellness is being emphasized more now than ever before. However, it’s more just than a buzzword. It’s also a vital part of keeping your business healthy.

Starting the mental health conversation in the workplace is no easy task, but it can promote honest, healthy work habits, and reduce stress.

This guide explains the importance of discussing mental health in the workplace, why these discussions need to start with your C-suite executives, and how you can effectively conduct them with your team.

Mental Health in the Workplace: Why It Matters

For those who have been in the business world for a long time, the recent shift to focusing on mental health might seem a bit strange.

Some executives might wonder why they need to make mental health a priority. They might even think discussions about mental health in the workplace are inappropriate.

There are several reasons why discussing mental health in the workplace matters — for everyone, from the CEO to the newest intern. Here are some of the top benefits you can experience when you commit to prioritizing mental health at your company:

Eliminate Stigma

Over the last few years, the world has made impressive shifts when it comes to people’s attitudes toward mental health. At the same time, though, mental health challenges are still heavily stigmatized.

A poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association revealed that nearly half of all employees have concerns about discussing mental health challenges while at work. More than one-third also said they were afraid of being retaliated against or fired for seeking out mental health care.

Creating a stigma-free workplace is more important than ever these days when so many people are struggling with their mental health. After all, roughly 20 percent of Americans — 52.9 million people — currently face mental health challenges.

The more open people are in the workplace when it comes to mental health, the easier it is for them to feel more comfortable on the job. If they find themselves needing mental health support, they’ll also have a better idea of where to go to get help.

Improve Productivity

When eliminate — or at least reduce — mental health stigma at your company, your employees will likely be happier and experience a higher level of job satisfaction. Employees who are happy and satisfied with their jobs, in turn, tend to be more productive.

Think about it this way: It’s easier to stay focused and get things done when you’re feeling mentally healthy — and when you know that your manager and higher-ups in the company aren’t judging you for needing mental health support.

Increase Employee Retention

Last year, the United States — and many other countries — experienced The Great Resignation. Millions of people quit their jobs in 2021 for various reasons, ranging from low pay to being fed up with feeling disrespected in the workplace.

Resignation rates are still going strong this year, too. In fact, 44 percent of currently employed people consider themselves to be “job seekers” who are on the hunt for something better.

If you want to minimize employee turnover and increase your company’s retention rate, you need to take mental health seriously. If your employees don’t feel supported in the workplace or feel that they’re being judged for their mental health challenges, the likelihood increases that they’ll jump ship and look for a job somewhere else.

As a business owner, you know how expensive it can be to hire new employees. Not only do you have to worry about the cost of advertising a job and working with recruiters, but you also have to factor in the cost of lost and reduced productivity.  

Attract Better Employees

Prioritizing your employees’ mental health is a great way to reduce turnover and improve retention. It also makes recruiting easier in the event that you do have to hire someone new.

A company’s reputation plays a big role in whether or not people decide to work for them. The results from one study showed that a whopping 96 percent of students factored a company’s reputation into their decision about where to work.

If your business is known as a place that takes mental health seriously and actively works to help employees improve their health and well-being, you’ll likely find that you have an easier time filling vacancies. You’ll also have an easier time finding talented, highly qualified professionals to fill those vacancies.

Save Money

In addition to helping you save money on recruiting-related expenses, being more open about mental health in the workplace can also help your business save money.

Mental health challenges are expensive. They cost businesses over $225 billion per year in the form of lost productivity, diminished performance, absenteeism, presenteeism, and more.

By having regular conversations about mental health issues and providing employees access to resources to manage their mental health, you can significantly reduce costs for your business.

The results of one study showed that employees suffering from depression can cost their employers up to $44 billion per year. At the same time, another study revealed that after just 3 weeks of treatment, the number of employees who suffered from diagnosable mental illnesses — including depression — decreased by 50 percent.

Accessible treatment is key to combating mental health challenges and improving people’s quality of life. However, productive conversations need to happen first.

Letting your employees know that their mental illnesses are not something to be ashamed of is the first step to helping them get the treatment they need and making it easier for them to be productive and do their jobs well.

Increase Profitability

When you place a greater emphasis on mental health in the workplace and actively strive to create a stressful work environment, you won’t just save money. You’ll also increase your company’s profitability across the board.

One study showed that improving your employee well-being performance by just 4 percent can lead to a 1 percent increase in your company’s profits.

One percent might not seem like a lot, but remember that comes from just a 4 percent increase in wellness. Imagine what kinds of profitability improvements you could see if you experienced even larger improvements in wellness!

Why Discussing Mental Health Is a C-Suite Task

Clearly, there are lots of reasons to focus on mental health and make mental health and wellness programs bigger parts of your business.

Is it really the responsibility of you and your C-suite to make this happen, though? Can’t someone else, like an HR rep, handle it?

In short, no. Conversations on mental health should be led by the company’s C-suite.

Here are some key reasons why:

Change Starts at the Top

It doesn’t matter how large or small a company is. Change starts at the top.

C-suite executives set the tone for the entire business and play a major role in shaping the company’s culture.

If you and your fellow company leaders aren’t making mental health a priority, you might inadvertently be creating a less healthy and supportive environment for your employees. Furthermore, you could even be causing people to feel shame or judgment about their mental health challenges.

Everything from the language you use to the types of expectations you set for your employees has an impact on the company culture. If you’re not seen as a business leader who cares about people’s mental health, people aren’t going to feel comfortable sharing their challenges, let alone seeking support for them.

Employees Feel Supported

When you and other C-suite executives have regular conversations about mental health — and encourage other staff members to join in the conversation — you help your employees to feel more supported in their roles.

Sometimes, just knowing that you have your boss’s support or knowing that your boss doesn’t look down on those who have mental health struggles can go a long way.

As we mentioned above, if your employees feel supported by you and other higher-ups in the company, it creates a better company culture. It also can help to improve productivity, increase employee engagement, and boost retention rates.

Employees Feel Empowered

Not only will your employees feel supported by you and the rest of your company’s C-suite opening the conversation on mental health, but they may also feel empowered to take action.

If they know that higher-ups are understanding when it comes to the reality of mental health struggles and the need for treatment, they’ll feel empowered to seek help and utilize the resources available to them.

This might include attending counseling sessions, taking medication like antidepressants or anxiolytics, or being more intentional about setting boundaries between their work and home life.

Remember, empowered employees who take control of their mental health are more likely to be productive employees. They’ll have the tools they need to get things done, be engaged in their work, and help your business achieve its long-term goals.

C-Suite Executives Need Help, Too

C-suite executives often face bigger mental health challenges than their employees. Research shows that, among executives, 90 percent struggle with work-life balance, and 40 percent deal with depression.

As an executive, you need and deserve to take your mental health seriously, too.

Opening up the conversation on mental health helps you and your colleagues to feel less shame and stigma around the challenges you face. It also reminds you that you’re not alone in your struggles and can empower you to seek support from professionals.

All of these outcomes can make you a better leader. After all, which CEO is going to be better at their job: The one who tries to muscle through their mental health struggles and eventually burns out, or the one who uses their resources and proactively seeks support?

How to Talk About Mental Health with Your Team

Perhaps you understand that it’s your responsibility as an executive to start the mental health conversation. However, you might still be hesitant to broach the subject because you’re worried about getting it wrong.

If this is the case, here are some tips to have productive, positive conversations about mental health with your employees:

Do Your Homework

Having conversations about mental health can be awkward, to say the least. It’s even more awkward when you’re not well-versed in mental health-related matters.

You don’t need to become a psychologist before you start having open discussions about mental health, of course. However, doing some research and education yourself can make a difference and help you connect better with your colleagues and employees.

Here are some specific steps you can take to improve your understanding:

  • Learn about common mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse issues;
  • Research other conditions — including examples of neurodivergence like Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder — that can contribute to mental health challenges in the workplace;
  • Familiarize yourself with the appropriate language to use — for example, focus on person-centered language and use terms like “person with a mental illness” instead of “mentally ill person”

Remember, nobody expects you to have all the answers or to get everything right. However, they do expect you to try your best and express a willingness to learn. 

Start with Your Fellow Executives

You don’t have to tackle the challenge of being more open about mental health alone. This is a job for your entire C-suite. If you want to start changing attitudes toward mental health challenges at your company, start with those closest to you — i.e., your fellow executives.

Arrange a meeting to express your concerns about how a lack of prioritization of mental health could be hurting the company.

Let other executives know that you want to start being more open about mental health at your business so your employees can get the resources they need.

This might be a good time to share all the research — including the studies linked in this guide — that reveal the benefits of prioritizing mental health in the workplace. If you feel comfortable doing so, you might also want to open up about struggles you’re experiencing or have experienced in the past.

Once you get buy-in from the rest of your C-suite, it’ll be easier for you to start implementing widespread changes throughout the company.

Choose the Right Time

Whether you’re talking to your C-suite or meeting with a group of team leads or managers, timing is essential.

Schedule meetings at times when people are most likely to be receptive to new ideas and ready to contribute to coming up with solutions. The end of the day on a Friday might not be the most ideal — at this point, everyone just wants to wrap up the work week and head home.

Connect with other employees and find a time that works best for as many people as possible. Give them a heads up about the topic of the meeting, too. That way, people won’t come in assuming they’re in trouble.

Seek Feedback

Part of creating a safe company culture — one where people feel comfortable talking about mental health, asking for help, and utilizing mental health resources — is making sure you regularly seek feedback from others.

This includes your fellow C-suite executives, but it shouldn’t stop with them. All team members likely have something valuable to offer when it comes to making your workplace more supportive and less stressful.

Seek feedback from everyone — managers, supervisors, team leads, employees from various departments, assistants, and interns. All of these people have different experiences, perspectives, and needs that should be taken into account when improving your business’s mental health offerings and making changes that benefit the entire company. 

How to Seek Feedback

Does the idea of all your employees coming at you at once with suggestions for opening or expanding the mental health conversation make you want to run into your office and hide under the desk?

Remember, you don’t have to field every single question, concern, or suggestion on your own. Get other leaders at your company to help you.

Perhaps you can hold a meeting with a manager or supervisor from each department. Let them know that you’re interested in making changes at the company that can improve everyone’s mental health. Then, give them the task of going to their departments and collecting feedback via surveys, comment cards, etc.

Set Your Ego Aside

When you start receiving feedback from your employees regarding company culture and mental health, there’s a good chance you’re going to get some negative or critical comments.

As the surveys or comment cards start rolling in with comments about what you’re doing wrong or what people don’t enjoy about working at your company, your hackles will likely go up.

You might feel defensive or frustrated. It’s understandable to feel this way. After all, you’ve worked hard to run this company and build it up.

Keep in mind, though, that part of being an effective leader is being able to accept and learn from criticism.

When you go to review people’s comments or sit down to receive feedback in person, do your best to go in with an open mind. Set your ego aside and remember that the goal is to make the company better. The only way you can do that is by knowing where there’s room for improvement.

Look for Patterns and Systemic Issues

During your conversations with other executives and team members, take notes and look for patterns in the issues that people are bringing up.

Does the idea of flexibility come up over and over again? Have many people said that the rigid schedules they’re expected to adhere to are causing them stress or making their lives more complicated?

If several employees are bringing up the same issue, that’s a sign that it should be higher up on your priority list. Making changes that address these common challenges will help to boost morale throughout the company and lead to higher wellness scores across the board.

Keep the Conversation Going

You can’t have one meeting or send out one mental health survey and expect everything to change. The same is true for making one change — such as allowing employees to work from home more often or set their own hours.

The conversation on mental health needs to be an ongoing one.

If you talk about mental health once and then never address it again — and, more importantly, don’t make any positive changes to your company — your employees probably aren’t going to take you seriously.

They may also not believe you when you say that you are sensitive to people’s mental health struggles or want to make your company a place that’s more supportive to those dealing with anxiety, depression, etc.

If you want to experience the benefits of prioritizing mental health, you need to make sure you’re truly prioritizing it.

This means making company-wide changes and checking in with your employees regularly. Make it a goal to keep learning what areas need adjusting and what you can do to make the company better for those who keep it running smoothly.

Tips for Improving Mental Health at Work

When it comes to dealing with stress at work and creating a more supportive, wellness-focused environment, it’s not enough to just have discussions with your team. You also need to act.

Here are some suggestions for how you can improve mental health at work for yourself, the rest of your C-suite, and your employees:

Encourage Flexibility

A survey of workers who quit their job in 2021 revealed that 45 percent factored a lack of flexibility into their decision. For 24 percent of people, this was the main factor in their decision, and for 21 percent it was a minor reason. 

One of the best ways to show your employees that you care about their mental health is to allow and encourage more flexibility in people’s schedules. More flexibility allows them to work when they’re most productive or creative, avoid the stress of sitting in traffic or figuring out childcare, and more.

If possible, allow people to work from home instead of commuting, or let them adopt a hybrid schedule (spending some time in the office and some time working remotely). You could also allow people to set their own schedules and come to work at the hours that are best for them.

Encourage Breaks and Time Off

Do you expect your employees to always be at their desks? Have you created a culture — intentionally or not — in which people are scared to use the vacation time they’ve accrued? Are people coming to work sick because they know they’ll be penalized if they fall behind?

When you don’t encourage breaks and time off, you set your employees up for heightened levels of stress and anxiety, as well as an increased risk of burnout. Regular breaks and vacations make your employees more productive, boost engagement, and help your company thrive.

Implement a Company Wellness Program

When it comes to health and wellness, think beyond your company’s insurance policy. It’s great that your employees can afford to go to the doctor or dentist, but what else can you do to increase overall wellness?

For example, perhaps you can create a fitness program that encourages your employees to be more active throughout the day. This might include investing in exercise equipment — and giving employees time to use it — or giving employees wearable fitness trackers and having contests to see who gets the most steps each week.

Be sure to include mental wellness in your program, too. Perhaps you can provide your employees with subscriptions to a meditation app or offer weekly on-site yoga classes. Encouraging mindfulness activities can help to reduce stress and improve mental health throughout the company.

Expand Your Health Benefits Plan with Concierge Medicine

Do your fellow executives and employees find your current health insurance plan to be comprehensive enough for their needs? If not, you may want to consider investing in concierge medicine as well.

Concierge medicine expands the care a person receives and provides access to a physician and other healthcare providers at all hours. Most are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This ensures that the patient can always get an appointment, without having to leave work early or try to fit in an exam around their daily meetings.

Many concierge practices offer wellness benefits, too. This includes nutrition services and mental health resources, and other tools that help patients improve their health in a variety of ways.

Investing in concierge medicine could be a good way to expand your benefits, provide access to more mental health and wellness services, and make your company more productive.

Appoint a Chief Wellness Officer

If you’re going to overhaul your company’s current approach to employee mental health, you might need to add another person to your C-suite. Appointing a Chief Wellness Officer (or CWO) is a great way to effect change from the top down.

The CWO will be in charge of several wellness-related tasks, including the following:

  • Creating education and destigmatizing mental health programs
  • Encouraging employees to expand their knowledge regarding mental health
  • Designing and implementing support structures to provide mental health help to those who need it

Appointing a CWO shows your employees that you’re serious about improving mental health and wellness at your company. It also ensures that the conversation on mental health continues long after the initial meeting.

Consider Psychological First Aid

The term “psychological first aid” refers to training for managers and other leaders to help them know how to address acute mental health needs.

After receiving this training, you may also appoint certain employees as “mental health first responders” and task them with identifying and providing resources to employees in need.

Those who participate in psychological first aid training and become first responders will learn how to catch warning signs that someone is struggling. They’ll also have access to resources that they can then pass along to that particular employee.

Lead by Example

Remember, changes in company culture start from the top. If you want your employees to start taking their mental health more seriously, you need to do the same.

This might look like taking regular breaks and vacation so your employees know they can as well. You could also make it a point to utilize other resources, such as the company gym.

Not only does this give others permission to do so, but it also shows them how important it is to take care of themselves.

Establish and Respect Boundaries

Another way to lead by example is to establish boundaries as an executive.

Setting clear boundaries around your work hours, when you’re available to chat, or when you respond to emails will help you to improve your own mental health and create more division between your work and personal life.

Be sure to respect others’ boundaries, too. If you email people at all hours of the day and night, you’re not showing respect for their time, nor are you sending the message that you want them to prioritize their mental health.

Encourage Regular Feedback

As we mentioned earlier, the conversation on mental health needs to be an ongoing one. Part of keeping the conversation going is encouraging regular feedback.

Feedback is especially important after you’ve made a change at your company.

For example, once you’ve created and implemented a wellness program or started offering concierge medical services, send out surveys to find out what your employees think and if anything is lacking. Look for patterns in the feedback to see what needs your attention first.

Again, remember to set your ego aside when reviewing this feedback. Focus on what’s best for your business and those who work for you.

Start the Mental Health Conversation Today

Talking about mental health — and following those discussions up with action — is essential to creating a positive company culture and giving your team the tools they need to succeed.

If you want to have more conversations about mental health but aren’t sure where to begin, start with the tips discussed in this guide. They’ll point you in the right direction and help you show your employees that you’re serious about improving mental health.