Since 1949, Mental Health America and its affiliates have led the observance of May as Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a time for community members, self-advocates, and organizations to raise awareness and educate the public about mental illness, often through educational events, media releases, and mental health screenings.
This year, the recognition of Mental Health Month is especially pertinent – as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the mental well-being of all individuals feels strained. It is a prime season for employers to make sure their staff are practicing important self-care techniques.
Mental Health is Just as Important as Physical Health
1 in 5 people, or roughly 19% of Americans, will experience some form of a mental illness during their lifetime, and everyone is susceptible to experience challenges that impact their mental health.
Comparatively, mental illness is just as prevalent (or more) than some common physical ailments:
7.7% of Americans are diagnosed with asthma
10% of Americans are diagnosed with diabetes
12.1% of American adults are diagnosed with heart disease
Despite this, stigma toward the prevention and treatment of mental illness persists. Just as we care for our physical health, the attention we give our mental health is equally as important. Physical and mental health often work in tandem, and either can have a significant effect on the other.
Healthcare Staff Face More Risk for Mental Illness
The nature of the work many of your staff perform can come with a higher risk of developing a mental illness. One study found that employees in health and human services are more likely to experience stressors on the job that result in a decline in mental health. This was particularly prevalent in positions that are considered “lower skilled”, such as direct support professionals.
The coronavirus pandemic has added a complicated layer of stress and anxiety for many health and human service workers. The emotional toll of caring for COVID-19 patients or working in high-risk environments, such as hospitals, is creating a breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and PTSD among healthcare workers. A recent study highlighted these risks, showing that half of Chinese healthcare workers who treated COVID-19 patients earlier this year now experience depression. It is reasonable to expect a similar wave of US healthcare workers experiencing the lasting effects of trauma after the pandemic eases.
5 Ways to Help Your Staff Take Care of Their Mental Health
Given the added stressors we are all facing, it is especially critical for employers to help their staff take care of their mental health this month. The following steps can help you get started:
1. Recognize the Signs of Burnout
One of the best ways to be proactive about your staff’s mental health needs is recognizing when they are expressing signs and symptoms of burnout. Employees who are increasingly disengaged, regularly expressing a cynical or negative outlook, and even skipping work or arriving late could all be experiencing burnout. Burnout can also manifest in feelings of helplessness, a sense of failure or self-doubt, and increased dissatisfaction on the job. At worst, burnout can manifest in physical symptoms or in the use of alcohol or drugs to cope.
Employees experiencing burnout are less likely to be effective at their jobs, resulting in poorer quality of care. Recognizing when burnout occurs can help you step in and mitigate its negative effects sooner.
2. Encourage Staff to Practice Self-Care
Practicing self-care can be easier said than done; it requires your staff to give themselves the same grace, compassion, and attention they are used to giving others. From a supervisor’s perspective, this can mean that you, too, must make a point of modeling what self-care looks like at your organization.
Encourage your employees to take breaks as needed, including making use of your company’s PTO or vacation policies. Model appropriate work-life boundaries (this may mean no more responding to e-mails at ten o’clock at night). Check in regularly with your staff to make sure they are carving out time in their days to practice self-care, whatever that looks like for them.
3. Host a Mental Health Screening or Other Educational Event
Organizations can invest in the mental well-being of their staff by hosting events that raise awareness and reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care. Providing free mental health screenings (either in-person or online) can help encourage employees to seek help sooner, if needed. Mental Health America’s online toolkit for Mental Health Awareness Month has more resources for employers who wish to hold these events with their employees.
4. Share Available Resources Staff Can Leverage
Determine what supports could best benefit your staff, then work to collect and share resources with them. If your company utilizes an employee assistance program (EAP), make sure your staff are aware of this benefit and understand how to access it. It may also be beneficial to connect with your HR leaders and see if your health insurance provider offers any free resources to employees and their families.
You can also connect staff with resources outside your organization. Provide employees with the contacts for mental health counseling numbers or crisis hotlines for times of duress. Reach out to community partners to see if employees can take advantage of programs to help with childcare, free meals for students, or resources for seniors. Mutual aid groups have mobilized to address the unmet needs of communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – these can help employees who may be feeling strained during the pandemic.
5. Recognize Employees for Their Work and Accomplishments
During times of additional stress and concern, it can be easy to forget to simply thank your employees for the work they are doing. Remember to recognize your staff for their efforts, especially if they have had to change their normal work routine to meet the needs of your organization during the coronavirus pandemic. Taking the time to show recognition can help fill employees’ cups and make them feel cared for, which can reduce the risk for burnout.