Addressing mental health in the workplace is vital but tricky. Here’s what we’ve found works

Author: Sandy Jordan, Director of Employment Programs at Able South Carolina

Supporting your employees’ mental health has become a hot topic lately, and one that’s necessity has been amplified with the Coronavirus pandemic. According to a study in the US in April 2020, 13.6% of respondents reported “severe psychological distress,” which is a 250% increase from 2018, when only 3.9% of respondents reported these feelings. With the public’s increased mental health crisis and their increased openness about it on social media, employers are taking the initiative to support their employees’ mental health in new ways—not only in the midst of a crisis, but especially in the midst of a crisis.

Which leads to the fundamental question: How can I effectively support my employees’ mental health?


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I work with a lot of executives and HR professionals as a part of our Hire Me SC campaign, and a few common concerns we hear from them are saying the wrong thing/offending their employees, as well as the perception of “special treatment” among other workers. I understand why employers have these concerns, which is to say that I understand the stereotypes and perceptions around people with psychiatric disabilities that would lead employers to have these concerns. What it tells me is that informed leadership is an important first step of supporting the mental health of your workforce.

Accommodating psychiatric disabilities in the workplace, regardless of whether those psychiatric disabilities are temporary or chronic, can also be perceived as even trickier than accommodating an employee with a physical disability. For someone with a mobility disability, an accommodation could be as straightforward as providing them with adapted computer equipment. It’s more of a “one-and-done” approach, whereas people with invisible disabilities or psychiatric conditions require support that is often more conceptual and less concrete (think flexible schedule, supervision, etc.—but more on this later).

That being said, supporting and accommodating your staff’s mental health is certainly doable, important, and, more often than not, no- or low-cost. As a manager at an organization primarily made up of employees with disabilities, I’ve tried many different methods and adjustments to support my staff’s mental health. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way:

1) Lead by example. In order for your staff to start discussing their own mental health and the ways they could be better supported, they need to feel that they are in a comfortable and safe work environment, where they won’t be punished or judged for being open about their need for support. One way to do this is to lead by example. Be open about some of the challenges you face in the workplace, with your mental health, or anything else that you feel comfortable sharing. By taking the lead, you forge new paths for your employees to follow.

2) Be mindful of current events that may be affecting the way your employees are showing up at work. With recent protests, elections, and the global pandemic, your staff may already have a lot weighing heavily on their minds. Being kind and considerate—and maybe even opening up space for employees to discuss what’s on their mind or how they’re feeling at the start of a meeting—will go a long way in supporting your staff.

3) Train your staff and show them you will not tolerate judgment or skepticism around other staff members’ invisible disabilities. Often, people with invisible disabilities (like mental illnesses) face skepticism from their colleagues, friends, and family. Their disability isn’t visible, so people question whether it is even there at all. One way to avoid these judgments or feelings of resentment circulating around the office is by having all of your staff complete training on mental health and psychiatric disabilities. With more education comes more understanding.

4) Most importantly, be flexible, and understand that each and every staff member’s needs will be different. Some people have temporary/situational mental health support needs, and others face permanent or chronic psychiatric disabilities. They will all have different ways of coping and adapting their work environment. Even with staff members who have the same disability, they may not need the same accommodations. Supporting your staff is rarely a “one size fits all” approach. Be open to trying new modifications with your employees and seeing what works best for them. A great place to start is the Job Accommodation Network, or AskJAN.org. You can search by disability or accommodation, and within each disability there are lists of accommodations by limitation and by work-related function. This site is a great place to start when looking for specific ways to accommodate an individual employee.

Supporting your employees’ mental health is a topic we will be discussing at length at the annual Hire Me SC Employer Summit on October 7, from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. online. Hale Pulsifer, the vice president of the office of customer accessibility at Fidelity Investments, will be leading a session on the evolution of mental health inclusion in the workplace. As Pulsifer says in his article Wellness at Work: Why It’s Time to Talk About Mental Health, “Working with Fidelity’s Enable employee resource group, I was finally able to find the courage to talk about depression. When Enable expanded its focus to include mental health, more colleagues shared their own experiences with similar issues, from anxiety to schizophrenia. I was struck by their candor and their bravery and how helpful their stories were to me. I realized that I could also help associates and peers by opening up about my own struggles.”

To learn more and to register for the Employer Summit, go to www.hiremesc.org/employer-summit.

About the Author
Sandy Jordan serves as the director of employment programs at Able South Carolina, and has a special interest in youth transition, connecting with employers, and financial literacy for individuals with disabilities. Sandy is the liaison and facilitator for the SC Disability Employment Coalition, a statewide initiative to decrease employment barriers for people with disabilities. Through the Coalition she coordinates the efforts of the SC Employment First Initiative, a systems-change enterprise to increase employment outcomes for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, through collaboration with thirteen project partners. Sandy received her bachelor’s in psychology from Lander University and holds a Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of South Carolina. She is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and Global Career Development Facilitator.

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