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Addressing Mental Illness and Workplace Safety

By Bennett Cuthbert
Published: August 23, 2021
Presented by Avetta
Key Takeaways

Many employees struggle in silence due to mental health stigma. Positive conversations about stress and mental health can help these workers get the support they need.

Caption: Stressed worker at desk Source: Tetiana Soares / iStock

This article is based on the Stopping the Stigma: Best Practices for Addressing Mental Illness and Workplace Safety webinar. Register now to learn more!

Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders or diseases. It is, in fact, part of our overall health and can impact every aspect of our lives, from relationships to finances to our opportunities for experiencing joy.

It also has a wide spectrum of effects. A mental health issue could simply result in an off day or it could be seriously debilitating.


We all have our individual stress levels and issues that affect our ability to handle adverse events. What barely bothers you one day could feel crushing the next.

Despite the huge impacts our mental health can have on our lives, there are many factors that may prevent us from seeking help. For instance:

  • The perception that seeking help is a weakness
  • Embarrassment due to public and personal stigma
  • Fear of impact on reputation, relationships, and work status
  • Lack of understanding of what mental health is and its impacts

This is why education is so important - it is crucial to creating a workplace that is free of mental health stigma. In an environment like that, people who are suffering would be more likely to seek the help they need.

However, it is also important to keep those who are not suffering in mind. They play an integral role as they could either assist those who are suffering or make their experience even worse.

Some of the things that might prevent someone from providing help are:

  • A lack of understanding of what mental health is and its impacts
  • Concern about invading someone’s privacy
  • Uncertainty about what to say or do
  • A belief that it is not their place to speak up or intervene

While laws, policies, and HIPAA should always be taken into consideration, it is important to always show active caring to those dealing with mental health struggles. Some examples of helpful things you can say or do are:

  • Be non-intrusive, non-judgmental, and compassionate
  • Provide assistance in accessing mental health services
  • Follow up to show active caring and offer help or support
  • Listen carefully to their response
  • Refer them to resources available through your workplace or within your community - let them know help is available
  • Ask open-ended questions such as “How are you today?” or “What can I do to help?” instead of yes-or-no questions like “Are you okay?”

(Learn about Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in Construction)

Breaking the Stigma

Breaking the stigma around mental health is everyone’s responsibility. Employers, however, have a unique opportunity to start the conversation, support mental health initiatives, and leading the way to a better work environment.

Employers have a captive audience. Their employees are at work 40 hours a week. During this time, employers are able to have them attend meetings and participate in mental health activities. Employers should also provide ample positive messaging to dismantle the stigma that can be associated with speaking about mental health struggles and challenges.


Company leaders can set a tone of acceptance and tolerance by voicing encouragement, holding open and honest conversations, showing support, and sharing personal experiences - whether it be challenges they have faced or those of family members or friends.

in addition to opening up the conversation, it's important to be aware of possible mental health indicators so that you can identify those who may need support. These warning signs may include:

  • Depression - being sad, withdrawn, or unmotivated for more than two weeks
  • Self-harm - making plans to or trying to harm oneself
  • Risk-taking - out of control risky behaviors
  • Weight change - significant weight loss or gain, eating disorders
  • Sudden overwhelming fear - fear manifesting for no apparent reason, possibly accompanied by a racing heart and hyperventilation
  • Severe mood swings
  • Substance abuse
  • Drastic changes in behaviors, personality, or sleep patterns
  • Lack of focus - extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still
  • Excessive worrying - fears getting in the way of daily activities such as spending time with friends or being on time

As an employer, it is also important to be aware of any stressors your employee may be affected by. Being aware of and understanding the things that may cause your employees’ stress is crucial in creating a positive and healthy environment. There are many potential causations a person could be affected by, but some typical ones in a workplace are:

  • Job insecurity: generations are no longer working for the same company
  • High stress: related to medical, legal, or financial responsibility to others
  • Promotion: the demand to obtain a higher position
  • Ergonomics: physical strain and working through the pain
  • Hazards: working in hazardous conditions can contribute to a worker's stress levels
  • Overtime: including workers who feel the need to be available after hours and on weekends via text or email
  • Family structure: mothers, fathers, and caregivers not being able to stay home with their children
  • Higher cost of living: increased stress to retain position or current salary level
  • Heavy work demands: unable to merge work and family life and create a balance

The Financial Impact of Addressing Mental Health

Addressing mental health stigma is also good for business. While health and safety don't directly turn a profit, it nevertheless makes a positive and significant contribution to a company's finances.

For one thing, health and safety influences employee retention. The time to hire, train, and get a new employee up to speed comes with significant costs. A high turnover rate also takes its toll on the remaining workforce, who lose coworkers and team members.

Healthcare costs can also be quite substantial. Approximately one-third of health-related costs are mental health or disability claims. This could also have an impact on your insurance premiums.

Stress Reduction Measures

The following are some initiatives employers take in order to reduce the stressors their workers face:

  • Flexible hours
  • Special days off - birthday leave, a floating holiday, days off for coping with high stress levels
  • Manage hours worked - be aware of work that might be performed at off times and don't expect employees to perform any work outside of work hours
  • Redefine sick days - if someone has the flu or other medical health issues they are not encouraged to push through or put it aside; mental health should be given the same consideration
  • Allow remote work when possible - commuting itself can be a stressor for many workers
  • Teach mindfulness techniques - these can help workers manage their stress levels

(Learn more in 9 Strategies to Promote Workplace Mental Health)

Commonplace Conversations

Employers should also be aware of the language that is used in their workplace. Negative phrases can impede good faith conversations and mental health terms that carry negative connotations can prevent workers from seeking help. They often label the affected person as either weak or lacking willpower, which simply adds stress to those who are already suffering.

Employers should encourage the use of positive and inclusive language when discussing mental health. They can also establish programs that discuss mental health symptoms, the science behind them, and the resources that are available to the workforce.

A mental health clinician could also be brought in to provide information and brochures to the employees. It is also beneficial to post phone numbers and informational posters in common areas or on boards with other medical information.

Wellness screenings should also be broadened to include not only blood pressure and cholesterol levels but also mental health indicators.

Going Beyond

Companies should determine which level of action is required when tackling mental health in the workplace.

  • Precautionary
    • Culture of caring
    • Education and awareness
    • Prevention factors
    • Promoting resources and wellness clinics
  • Interactive
    • Training on warning signs
    • Mental health screenings
    • Early identification
    • Providing resources
  • Active
    • Heighten security
    • Manage crises
    • Bring in external resources
    • Offer support

Once they've identified what level they're at, companies can look into the next steps to either get them to or remain at the interactive level. The following are some steps that can be taken to accomplish this goal.

Employers can confirm that employees are aware of the benefits afforded by the medical plan. What is covered can be confusing to most people who don't work in the insurance field. While reviewing them is technically the employee’s responsibility, employers should nevertheless provide additional information and make time during company meetings to address insurance questions.

After a significant event, such as a serious injury or a fire, employees could be brought together to hold conversations that will allow them to express thoughts, feelings, or concerns. While they all went through a similar experience, people will react to it differently. If the event was significant enough, consider bringing in an outside counselor.

Bring in counselors to facilitate meetings and provide guidance and resources. Having clinicians and counselors provide expert information can help change mindsets and give additional support to those with mental health concerns.

Review the mental health benefits provided through your insurance plan. Work with an insurance broker to find a corporate plan that will provide adequate coverage for mental health.

Encourage the use of your Employee’s Assistance Program (EAP), which typically offers mental health benefits. Most companies that have a medical plan gave an EAP plan as well. EAPs offer lots of supports and resources and typically do not get used enough by the workforce.

(Learn more in 5 Benefits of an Employee Assistance Program)

Train company leaders to ensure they are comfortable with mental health topics and can model positive behaviors. Just as leaders are trained for drugs and alcohol, they should be trained to recognize signs and symptoms of stress and mental health. Proper training will reduce fears that are often associated with the unknown.

Introduce healthy habits into the work culture to improve well-being, such as:

  • Staying connected with others - feeling close and valued
  • Physical activity - being active improves outlook and lowers depression and anxiety
  • Diet and nutrition - improves mental health
  • Education - continued learning boosts self-esteem and fosters social interaction
  • Giving back - good deeds and acts of kindness no matter how small increase well-being and socialization

Policy changes can also make a big difference. Not every policy chance makes sense for every workplace, but any that you can implement could help reduce stress among your workforce.

  • Allow customized workstations - personalized workstations brings enjoyment and creativity, whether it be family photos or seasonal-holiday decorations
  • Remove employees from their environment - provide a lounge or breakroom and encourage workers to use it rather than spend their breaks at their workstations
  • Bring furry friends - pets bring joy and happiness with them if possible allow them in the workplace or create a company program
  • Go green - allow indoor plants or create break areas with greenery, water for soothing sounds, or small fish
  • Take a walk - being sedentary for too long increases stress and strain; encourage small break every hour to improve circulation and mental stamina
  • Desktop games or squeeze stress relief ball - a desktop basketball hoop, liquid motion, football, or Newton’s cradle

(Find out Why Stress Should Be Treated as a Serious Workplace Hazard)

Potential Stressors and How to Address Them

Risk Factor
Actions to be Taken
High demand or pressure, no margin for error
Staff appropriately: set obtainable expectations, highlight success, share lessons learned, reduce stress in the workplace
Lethal opportunities
Heighten job security, avoid activities that allow for the opportunity to hide weapons, restrict deliveries from unknown or non-vetted suppliers
Lack of access or understanding of Mental Health Care
Awareness, promotion, education
Supervisors without mental health training
Supervisors undertake mental health awareness training to understand and communicate
Language—such as "walk if off" or "suck it up" or "don't worry about it"
Zero tolerance for harassment, bullying, or ignoring
Chronic pain or stress
Mandatory breaks, stretch and flew, breathing
Sleep interruption or deprivation
Consider alternate schedules for workers during critical times
Inclusion in all activities as possible and communications
Reduction in workforce
Provide support system to help employees with stress and financial assistance
Substance abuse
Heighten awareness and training, offer EAP programs

Use Checklists to Review Your System

As an organization begins its journey to improving mental health, it may be beneficial to conduct an in-depth system review. Using checklists to evaluate programs will determine whether any changes need to be made.

These two examples of system checklists are very basic, but gives you a rough idea of the kinds of questions an organization should ask itself.

Employer Checklist:

  • Does your organization have policies related to mental health in place?
  • Do you offer mental health as part of your insurance plan?
  • Does your Employee Assistance Program offer mental health and are you employees provided this information as routine?
  • What is your leave of absence policy with regard to mental health?
  • What return to work options and accommodations does your organization offer?

Employee Checklist:

  • Do I feel that my worries and concerns are being heard?
  • Do I have a sense of belonging?
  • Do I have the supports in place to meet performance objectives and ensure that I feel like I am contributing to the organization?
  • Do I have choices, control, and autonomy related to my work tasks?
  • Are my concerns recognized? Are they understood and validated?
  • Am I empowered in my capacity as an employee?

Break Down the Barriers

In order for companies to create healthy working environments, they must learn the facts about mental health, share those facts, and move the conversation in a positive direction. Mental health struggles are prevalent and those who suffer from them often encounter invisible barriers that prevent them from getting the support they need.

Breaking the stigma plays a major role in ensuring that workers use the resources available to them and get the help they require. Employers taking a proactive role is the only real way to create this change.

Additional Resources:

To watch this video, head over to the Stopping the Stigma webinar page and register now.


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