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Wellsource Blog

10 Strategies to Improve Mental Health in Workforce Populations

Written by Wellsource, Inc.

May 21, 2019

It’s clear that American adults are experiencing psychological distress. Two out of five employees (42%) have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety, according to a recent Harris Poll. Job stress is estimated to cost businesses more than $300 billion a year. Depression is estimated to cause around 200 million lost workdays.

Learn more about how health risk assessments can delver deeper into depression risks:

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Wellness and population health managers hear a lot about the cost of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, and habits that contribute to them. And they need to be addressed. But psychological distress is also a significant health condition. It’s linked to chronic disease. And it’s associated with unhealthy habits. In fact, when Wellsource looked at health risk assessment data from more than 270,000 working adults they found that four times as many unhappy people use tobacco compared to the happiest (13.5% vs. 3.3%). In contrast, positive mental health is associated with productivity, social connection, positive self-perception of health, life satisfaction, hopeful outlook on the future, healthy habits, and longevity.


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 hold their mental health really close to their chest, being asked questions to identify psychological distress can open doors for interventions. A corporate culture that makes it OK to talk 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.

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.”

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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: newsletters highlighting coping strategies, flyers on walls, resiliency classes, and programs that connect them to therapists when needed. But nothing works more effectively than a person’s peer group. Employers should find people in each department and at every level within the organization who are obvious influencers. Recruit them (with incentives, if necessary) to 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 also indicates 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 connection. 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 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.

Learn more about how to create a culture of health in your organization by downloading our guide below.

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 only 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, and 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.


Learn more about mental health and how Wellsource data shows which lifestyle habits are most likely to impact your workforce's happiness.

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"If you can only know one thing about a person, it should be how they rate their overall health. The answer to this question is an excellent indicator of an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing."

Dr. Brittany U. Carter Wellsource Director of Health & Research