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Mental wellness at the workplace: It goes beyond the occasional day-off



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Aaron Harvey, Partner and Co-Founder at Ready Set Rocket, delves into why employees’ long-term wellness is not about giving them a day off, but it’s more about introducing a comprehensive mental health change.

“Take a mental health day.”

That phrase has become a catch-all solution for young workers facing burnout, and while we should appreciate organisations that encourage time off, long-term wellness is about a lot more than the occasional 24-hour break. What we need, is comprehensive mental health change.

Modern executives have leaned into workplace culture trends as a means of addressing rising stress levels, dwindling work-life balance and cries for more reasonable schedules. They’ve adopted open floor plans, dog-friendly policies and healthy snack cabinets. They’ve encouraged team outings and hosted mindfulness events.

I myself have invested in similar initiatives and stand-by the benefits they provide a company. But they’re no substitute for real mental health change. These are surface-level perks that don’t address burnout, let alone workplace challenges caused by pre-existing mental conditions.

By estimation, 32 million workers in the US experience mental illness in a given year. To make matters worse, it’s estimated that only half of persons with mental illness have sought treatment in the prior year. And those numbers don’t speak for persons coping with undiagnosed conditions like I did for over 20 years.

Beyond that, technology has fundamentally shifted modern work habits. We are now available 24/7 — a reality that has earned Millennials the title “burnout generation.” Our lack of action isn’t only affecting those with chronic conditions, it’s hurting employees who have developed mental strain as a byproduct of our new working culture. And we’re paying the price.

According to a 2015 study by NAMI Massachusetts, 64% of absenteeism can be attributed to those missing work because of poor mental health, and 81% of productivity loss can be attributed to employees who work while sick — a phenomenon called presenteeism.

As an employer with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), I’ve know first-hand how work can be affected by mental illness. And to be honest, I haven’t always gotten things right. It wasn’t until I came clean about my OCD, and entered proper treatment, that I recognised the need for comprehensive change within my company, and started making a conscious effort to create a space that prioritises mental well-being.

There’s a reason employees feel unable to disconnect and recharge, even amidst a rise in mental health days and in-office lounges. It’s time we start addressing the real issue.

Doing so has involved a combination of culture and policy change. Companies shouldn’t only deliver perks that foster a fun environment; they need to implement foundational reforms that encourage conversation and make mental health support accessible. The framework I use involves six simple steps:

#1 Start the conversation

Inspire a company-wide dialogue about mental health, burnout and the warning signs of a potential crisis.

#2 Offer accommodations

Be willing to make reasonable adjustments to work schedules and responsibilities so employees battling mental illness have the opportunity to thrive.

#3 Commit to confidentiality

Implement a trustworthy system for disclosing a diagnosis and requesting support.

#4 Align physical and mental health benefits

Provide parity in benefits so mental health treatment is accessible and encouraged amongst staff.

#5 Fund wellness initiatives

Make well-being a fundamental component of company culture by investing in fun and relaxing community-building activities.

#6 Provide personalised growth plans

Give employees the structure and encouragement they need to feel valued by your organisation.

There’s a reason employees feel unable to disconnect and recharge, even amidst a rise in mental health days and in-office lounges. It’s time we start addressing the real issue. Creating laid-back, comfortable spaces isn’t inherently problematic, but equating it with proactive mental health reform is. Simply put, hip does not equal healthy.

Mental illness affects one in five people. Your mentors. Your employees. Maybe you suffer in silence. It’s time to band together and start tackling this problem head on. The next time someone recommends a ping-pong table as a solution to burnout, use it as an opportunity to introduce changes that go a bit deeper.


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