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10 Strategies to Improve Mental Health in Workforce Populations

By Wellsource, Inc.

It’s clear that mental health is a leading issue facing health and wellness practitioners in the workplace.

In 2021, The Hartford published new research that revealed 70% of employers recognize employee mental health as a significant workplace issue. And the strain of mental health in the workplace has gotten worse: 31% of employers said the strain on employee mental health is having "a severe or significant financial impact on the company"—a 10-point increase from March 2020 survey results.

Job stress is estimated to cost businesses more than $300 billion a year. Depression is estimated to cause around 200 million lost workdays.

Wellness and population health managers hear a lot about the cost of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, and habits that contribute to these conditions. But what about psychological distress? Mental health is also a significant health condition and is linked to chronic disease.

 In contrast, positive mental health is associated with productivity, social connection, positive self-perception of health, life satisfaction, and hopeful outlook on the future, healthy habits, and longevity.

How can you encourage employees to take care of their mental well-being, and reach out for support within your health and wellness programs?

Here are ten strategies to improve mental health in workforce populations:

1. Create a safe place

While it’s true that people still tend to consider mental health a private matter, being asked questions to identify psychological distress can open doors for interventions. A corporate culture that normalizes talking about mental health issues can make it easier for employees to answer questions about health habits and mood. Mental health is comprised of many things, including happiness, resilience, diet, and rest. These components and associated habits can be easily assessed in a secure, confidential format that is sensitive to cultural concerns and stigmatized language.

2. Ask the right questions

Research has identified some very basic predictors of psychological distress, including income disparity, lack of sleep, and poor diets. But “if you can only know one thing about a person, it should be how they rate their overall health,” says Dr. Brittany Carter, Director of Health and Research at Wellsource. “The answer to this question is an excellent indicator of an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing.” Analysis of the Wellsource dataset found that very happy people are twice as likely to rate their health as excellent or good compared to unhappy people. “Of course,” Dr. Carter adds, “asking more questions will give a fuller picture of mental, social, and physical health.”

3. Identify influencers

Employers and health plans can do a lot to show their population that they care about the components of mental health, including:

  • Distributing newsletters highlighting coping strategies
  • Displaying flyers on walls
  • Offering resiliency classes
  • Coordinating programs that connect them to therapists when needed

One of the most effective influences on a person is their peer group. Employers should find people in each department and at every level within the organization who are obvious influencers or wellness champions. Recruit these individuals and provide them with talking points to help them share their own mental health journey and make talking about mental health less stigmatized.

4. Take a holistic approach

The eight dimensions of wellness outlined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are all interconnected. Improving weaker dimensions will benefit the others. For example, a health risk assessment (HRA) might show that an employee sleeps ten hours a night and is inactive. The HRA might also indicate, through self-reported health data, a high risk of depression. Readiness to change data shows the individual is ready to work on stress management. The motivation to feel less stressed could increase the individual’s willingness to include 10-minute walks each day in their stress management efforts. Physical activity has been linked with improved mood and better sleep.

5. Observe

Give management and HR the training to identify signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Pay attention to people’s major life events. Your team of influencers can also notice minor behaviors and clues that individuals may give without even knowing it.

6. Reach outside the organization

Subsidize course fees for employees to attend community classes that teach life skills that can help them become more resilient, cope with stress, and develop healthy social connections. Invite health professionals and community agencies to present 30- to 60-minute lunch-and-learn meetings that teach essential tools for managing life, such as financial planning and ways to improve quality of life. And encourage employees to volunteer in their communities. A longitudinal study suggests that volunteering may be beneficial to mental health in individuals aged 40 and older.

7. Promote a culture of rest and relaxation

According to Project Time Off, nearly half of American adults self-identify as work martyrs. They take fewer vacation days than ever before, even though taking a vacation would be good for their mental health. Create a culture of work/life balance that encourages people to take their vacation days and get the right amount of rest and sleep. Use workforce influencers to lead walking work breaks or relaxation exercises.

Creating A Culture Of Health

8. Affirm

Individuals who know they are respected, trusted, and heard are more likely to feel empowered and have a sense of belonging. Social support is associated with mental health, yet little more than half (57.6%) of the workforce population says they have it, based on the Wellsource dataset.

9. Promote healthy habits

Statistically significant differences exist in the lifestyle behaviors between individuals who are very happy and those who are unhappy. The Wellsource dataset shows that the happiest people are more likely to be physically active and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Organizations can encourage these healthy habits by stocking vending machines with nutritious snacks, hosting team-building kayaking and goat yoga outings, creating patio or rooftop gardens that provide food for lunchtime meals, or hosting mid-morning mindfulness sessions.

10. Know your limits

While it’s important to recognize the signs of psychological distress, it is equally important to know when to turn to experts. Counseling, particularly cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. And it’s worth every dollar. A study funded by the World Health Organization concluded that the value of investing in mental health outweighed the costs by as much as 5.7 to 1.

Many habits are associated with psychological distress, including unhealthy diet, insufficient exercise, and poor sleep quantity or quality. These steps can help wellness and population health professionals identify individuals who are unhappy and stressed, and provide interventions designed to restore mental health.

The majority of employees (88%) surveyed by Harris Poll believe employers have a responsibility to support their employees’ overall mental health. The American Psychiatric Association Foundation and Center for Workplace Mental Health agree, issuing a call to action for employers. Employer resources to help decrease the stigma of mental health are available through their Right Direction program.

Interested in learning more about the connection between mental and physical health? Our Annual Data Review: Happiness, Habits, & Health explores the health and lifestyle habits that contribute to mental and emotional well-being. 

Happiness, Habits & Health

"Good health is your greatest asset. You will never regret a decision to take better care of your health."

Don Hall, DrPH, CHES, Founder Wellsource