A Comprehensive Public Health Approach To Workplace Mental Health

Written by Rachael Steimnitz, NAMI-NYC’s Director of Workplace Mental Health, and Alayna Auerbach, NAMI-NYC’s Manager of Workplace Mental Health

In today’s rapidly evolving work environment, the mental health of employees shapes the core of organizational success. The pandemic served as a powerful catalyst, propelling the movement for workplace mental health into the spotlight and companies are experimenting with innovative, exciting programs. These initiatives are not just about reducing stress or preventing burnout; they represent a transformative opportunity to fundamentally alter the culture of workplaces. However, as vital as these efforts are, they face the complex challenge of intertwining work dynamics with mental health strategies to create effective programs. A public health approach can help guide employers as it emphasizes comprehensive strategies that operate on multiple levels: individual, interpersonal, and organizational. It involves implementing individual wellness programs, fostering a supportive community through team building and manager training, and modifying organizational policies to promote mental health awareness and accommodate diverse mental health needs.

The NAMI-NYC Workplace Mental Health Collaborative is one such program that supports employers at the individual, interpersonal, and organizational levels. The program consists of monthly meetings in which organizational leaders from Human Resources, Benefits and other departments learn about current research, tools, and resources to implement programs and create a community of practice by sharing their companies’ workplace mental health challenges and experiences. In conjunction, NAMI-NYC leads a training series to teach employees how to practice resilience in the workplace. The evidence-informed curriculum was externally validated by the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University and found to significantly increase knowledge and attitudes of resilience and workplace mental health, use of coping strategies, and experiences of positive emotions.

As an organization led by people with lived experience of mental illness, we frequently encounter real life job-related challenges for people living with mental illness – or caring for someone who does. We draw from the perspectives of both the employers we work with and our community members with lived experience to apply a public health framework to workplace mental health. For companies looking to further advance their workplace mental health programs, here are suggested strategies across organizational, interpersonal, and individual levels to create a workplace where everyone feels supported in their mental health journey.

Organizational strategies to foster mental health friendly workplaces: Although many large organizations offer mental health benefits to some employees and have written policies related to supportive mental health practices, the knowledge about and consistent enforcement of these policies often falls short. Challenges such as the complexity of legalistic language, a lack of awareness about available options or services, and a disparity between written policies and office culture can hinder their effectiveness. Organizational benefits and policies can be highly effective in promoting employee mental health by creating a supportive environment that proactively addresses and reduces workplace factors related to poor mental health and promoting access to resources.

  • Accessible Resources: Ensure all employees are informed about the mental health resources available to them. This includes external benefits such as mental health insurance coverage, access to culturally competent in-network providers, and employee assistance programs. Additionally, make sure they are aware of internal benefits that promote emotional wellness, like flexible work schedules and paid time off (PTO). Employees should understand how to access these resources and feel safe utilizing them without fear of professional repercussions.
  • Clear Policies: Develop clear, concise mental health policies, such as requesting accommodations that are easily accessible and avoiding overly complex documents that go unused.
  • Social Support: Enhance social support networks and strengthen the employee voice to give feedback within the workplace through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and mental health peer support programs.

Interpersonal strategies for managers to promote good mental health. When designing programs focused on workplace mental health, it’s crucial to consider the pivotal role of middle managers and the challenges they encounter in their responsibilities. Managers have a huge impact on our mental health and are often the first people employees go to when they are experiencing a mental health challenge, but managers are rarely prepared to address these issues, particularly as they come up in performance management conversations.

  • Training for Managers: Equip managers with training to recognize mental health issues, conduct compassionate conversations, and support employees in distress by connecting them to resources. Provide resources to assist managers to understand the difference between performance management issues and mental health challenges and know how to respond appropriately.
  • Open Communication: Encourage managers to foster a culture of open dialogue about mental health and challenge the normalization of stress and overworking. By using person-first language (which identifies the person before their diagnosis, such as someone lives with bipolar disorder, as opposed to someone being bipolar), sharing their own mental health challenges, how they address them, and regularly checking in with staff, managers can create a sense of psychological safety and encourage help-seeking behavior.
  • Healthy Work Environment: Empower managers to proactively address workplace stressors by ensuring manageable workloads, offering flexible schedules, maintaining clear job descriptions, conducting fair performance evaluations, and providing appropriate breaks and rewards. These workplace changes can also prevent and mitigate burnout.

Individual strategies for employees to support their own mental health. Recent research has questioned the impact of employee-level workplace wellness initiatives, but in our experience, this view underestimates the resilience of individuals to navigate their mental health challenges and other workplace difficulties. In conjunction with interventions at the organizational and interpersonal levels, teaching evidence-based skills can be incredibly valuable for providing tools for employees to better support their mental health.

  • Mindfulness Training: Offer mindfulness training to improve focus, problem-solving, interpersonal relations, and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and directly apply these skills in common workplace challenges, such as addressing conflict and providing performance management feedback. Provide access to meditation apps and group classes as part of employee benefits, which can be a popular resource for employees.
  • Stress Management: Teach employees to recognize their stress responses, understand personal coping mechanisms, and learn strategies to manage stress more effectively.
  • Flexible Thinking: Incorporate training in cognitive behavioral techniques to help employees modify their thoughts, enhancing resilience, decision-making, and fostering positive emotions. Include exercises in challenging negative thought patterns, reframing situations more optimistically, and identifying personal strengths to overcome challenges.

The workplace has historically been a catalyst for social change, and now is the ideal moment to focus on enhancing employee and organizational wellbeing. By adopting a comprehensive public health strategy, we can foster healthier work environments through various levels of influence, highlighting the pivotal role of employers in cultural transformation. Let’s seize this opportunity to collaborate in promoting good mental health and cultivating a culture that supports the wellness of employees, organizations, and the broader community.


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