As a company that solely partners with healthcare organizations to hire and retain top healthcare talent, we believe it’s important to cover anything and everything that could impact your employees. Mental health and building a culture of wellness is one of these topics.

My colleague, Stephanie Mosher’s, recently posted about the steps we take to prioritize mental health at HealthcareSource. Her article was written to share ideas with other HR leaders about the programs we’ve found have been successful for our team with hopes that it may help others launch their own similar initiatives.

As we reach the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought about what else we may be able to do to continue bringing mental health to the forefront. This led to my having a conversation with our CHRO, Kerry Unflat, due to her passion about mental health and building a culture of wellness.

We hope this conversation provides valuable insight to anyone looking for ideas or support on how to address mental health at your hospital, agency or senior care community. You can also watch Kerry’s session for tools and resources on how to approach mental health and how to build a culture of wellness at your organization.

What’s the most important thing you want our readers to know about mental health and why?

There are so many important things to think about when it comes to mental health that it is difficult for me to find just one. This has been on the top of my mind lately.

We have a habit of thinking in terms of mental illness and not mental health. I believe we need to shift to a concept of mental wellness and think about it as a continuum. Just because a person might display a symptom of being mentally unwell does not necessarily mean that they are ill or in despair.

We need to embrace the concept of mental wellness as an integral part of overall health. This shift in thinking allows us to destigmatize some of the beliefs around mental health, allowing for people to actively engage in their overall health and wellness. When the stigma is gone, we can begin to proactively identify our mental unwellness symptoms and become actively engaged on the path to wellness.

What do you think is driving employers’ increased attention to and concern for employee mental wellness?

I believe that HR practitioners have always been concerned about this topic, even before it has become acute due to the events of the past year.

Over the past year and a half, we have been dealing with crises and unrest that have been extraordinary – a global pandemic, social unrest, natural disasters, political divisiveness, loss of childcare, loss of elder care, grief caused by death, injury or injustice. These extraordinary circumstances have highlighted that many of our approaches to mental health in the workplace are reactive and that many organizations have been lacking the systems to support their workforces in meaningful ways.

Research indicates that focusing on proactive strategies for mental wellness and crafting prevention strategies are more meaningful. The first thing that HR departments should do to help employees struggling with their mental health is to educate themselves and the workforce at large. Most of the stigma around mental health exists because of misunderstandings, misrepresentation and misinformation. This stigma makes it very difficult for people to ask for help.

Why is it smart business to support employees’ emotional and mental health/build a culture of wellness?

All businesses should have proactive mental wellness strategies for their workforce because there are tangible business benefits. Mentally healthy workforces are more productive, have less turnover and cost employees less money from an insurance perspective.

Fostering mental wellness in companies and healthcare organizations creates a culture of resilience and strength. When these organizations are faced with challenges, their teams can be agile and adapt. Organizations that work to foster healthy cultures are better at attracting, recruiting, developing and retaining their talent and are known as employers of choice. Organizations that fail to recognize these real impacts will always be lagging their competition.

What’s the biggest thing employers overlook when it comes to workforce mental health?

Some employers tend to think that mental health is specific to an individual and overlook mental health wellness as a whole group. This comes from antiquated belief systems that personal problems should be dealt with at home and should not be brought into the workplace.

These belief systems also fail to acknowledge that workplace factors impact a person’s mental health wellness. Many of us spend a large portion of our waking hours at work. Employers can make a huge difference in a person’s overall mental wellness by creating healthy environments, fostering constructive cultures, offering strong health and wellness plans, and by training leadership on management and mental wellness.

I also think it is important to understand and acknowledge why we have not focused on this before. This is hard work. Mental health and wellness is complicated. Many employers defer these programs and make conscious choices not to surface the conversation in the workplace because of compliance concerns, lack of funding, or lack of understanding about the intersection of mental health wellness and the workplace.

It can be very overwhelming to think about creating systems that proactively address these issues in meaningful ways. My advice is to lay out a plan and link your strategy with positive business outcomes: Measure what matters and track your progress; Find your change makers at all levels in the organization and have them join your cause.

As my grandmother used to say, “Many hands make light work!” Don’t forget that you do not have to do this alone. There are many people who are passionate about mental health wellness in your organization. When others help with these actions, they become part of the movement and will be great ambassadors on your behalf.

What would you say to encourage employers to step up their employee emotional wellness efforts and why?

Let’s not let history repeat itself. We may not have control over certain crises (pandemic, natural disaster, politics, civil unrest, community violence) but we do have control over what we do for our organizations to make them healthy and resilient.

There are myriad tangible and intangible benefits to making these systemic changes in our organizations. It is time to learn from these moments, leverage the momentum and make meaningful change.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? What else should HR leaders know?

Remember that your leaders set the tone for how mental wellness is approached in your organization.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How are our leaders modeling positive behavior?
  • Do they discuss mental health in the workplace?
  • Are they authentic and genuine about their mental health and their overall wellness?

If your leaders are not modeling theses constructive behaviors, start understanding why. Encourage them to begin these conversations in their team meetings and one on ones. Culture does not change overnight. Your leaders will help drive this meaningful cultural change with you.

For additional tips, tools and tactical plans about creating a mental health program at your healthcare organization, click here.

About Jenna Vassallo

Jenna Vassallo is manager, corporate marketing at HealthcareSource. In her role, she oversees the corporate marketing team with roles across marketing operations, demand generation and field marketing/events. She also owns all content efforts at the company, including managing freelance writers, consultants and creative agencies. Her responsibilities include creating/editing campaign and web copy, advertising, public relations, social media, company communications and more. She is also a freelance photographer in the Boston area.