Workplace wellness has become a hot topic in the business community in recent years, with medical screenings, health education seminars and on-site fitness facilities becoming increasingly popular.
Yet while employers are shelling out $8 billion annually on employee wellness, according to a report from IBISWorld, many programs avoid tackling mental health.
“If someone has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, people have now reached a point” where many feel comfortable talking openly about their diagnosis, said Phillip Ginter, regional director of community initiatives at HealthlinkNY. “We haven’t reached a point where we’re comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace.”
To assist employers in making their employees’ mental health a priority, HealthlinkNY Community Network created a Workplace Wellness Mental Health Toolkit. This 55-page document offers ideas, tools and materials that companies can use to ensure their employees’ mental wellness.
“We’ve taken what can be a daunting process and broken it down into actionable steps,” Ginter said.
The toolkit, available online at workplacewellnessny.org, includes a self-audit for organizations and an anonymous survey for employees, with questions ranging from their opinions on their employer’s policies to their stress levels in the workplace. These documents, Ginter said, can help companies assess “where they’re at and what they could be doing.”
“Going through this process can be a really good eye-opener,” he added. “Even if companies are doing some really great things, there may be ways to improve.”
The toolkit also includes a language guide that can help managers and staff avoid stigmatizing phrases.
“Instead of saying ‘substance abuser,’ say they’re suffering from a substance abuse disorder,” Ginter said. “Instead of saying someone committed suicide, they died by suicide.”
There is also information on how to establish a mental health policy, support ideas for new parents and techniques to encourage employee self-care.
“If you wake up and you have the flu, you don’t think twice about calling in sick, but if you wake up and feel depressed or anxious, you’re probably not as likely to call in,” he said. “We want to make sure staff know it’s okay to call in.”
The toolkit traces its roots to 2016, when HealthlinkNY identified behavioral health and the stigma that surrounds the topic as an issue for both the Hudson Valley and the Southern Tier. “Our mental health outcomes in these regions are not where they need to be,” Ginter said.
The organization then convened work groups in each region with health care providers, community organizations and advocacy groups to determine how to improve those outcomes.
“We began having conversations about what we could do to develop a tool and provide these resources to the community,” Ginter said. “We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the best way to get this out to reach the most people?’ Then we decided, well, let’s look at the workplace.’”
The organization then interviewed more than 70 area businesses and found that while many employers offered workplace wellness programs, most were focused on physical health and very few offered programming around mental well-being.
“Even in industries that are addressing mental health, they had a lot going on to support their patients, but didn’t have a whole lot going on to support their own employees’ mental health,” Ginter said.
For the past six months, HealthlinkNY has been pilot testing the toolkit developed from those interviews at 30 businesses in the Hudson Valley and Southern Tier. Pilot sites include businesses, schools, health care organizations, government agencies and nonprofits.
“This was a great opportunity for us to have a learning experience,” said Jenny Sanchez, community relations manager at the Mental Health Association in Orange County Inc., whose Middletown office is a pilot site. “We see that employees who have this time to focus on their workplace wellness, they’re generally happier, and they report back as having lower stress levels.”
Though Sanchez’s organization had previously formed a wellness committee, the toolkit, namely the employee surveys, have shown there may be room for improvement in their workplace.
“We’re assessing the needs and what we could be doing better,” Sanchez said. “What we like about the toolkit is that it gives us clear direction on where to start and what ideas for continuing moving forward that we can do next. It gives that direction for making a plan and putting it into place.”
Sanchez said the toolkit is especially important for employees who themselves work in the mental health field. “It’s that idea of having the oxygen mask on the plane, where you’re instructed to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help someone with theirs,” she said. “It’s that idea of making sure if you’re going to be helping someone else, that you are taking care of yourself first.”
Officials have taken a similar approach at Goshen office of the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council (ADAC) of Orange County.
“If employees are enjoying themselves in their work and have enthusiasm while they’re here, that enthusiasm just leaks out to everyone they talk to on the phone or meet in person,” said Gina Lien, executive assistant at the nonprofit organization. “That calm, cool, happy demeanor really helps to reduce the stress of people they’re coming in contact with. It’s contagious.”
Though not one of the toolkit’s pilot sites, Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council representatives did attend a daylong wellness coordinator training session organized by HealthlinkNY and its partners.
Like the Mental Health Association, Lien said ADAC had in the past organized various wellness events, including a weight loss contest for employees, group walks on lunch breaks and yoga classes.
“It wasn’t until we attended this training that we realized we could bring the things we loved outside the workplace into our work environment and help our coworkers, so we started brainstorming what we wanted to do,” she said.
The result is the Zen Zone, an empty office space that the organization has transformed into a place to de-stress and unwind during the workday.
“It has couches for people to sit. There’s a salt lamp, a water fountain, aromatherapy, pillows and blankets,” Lien said. “It’s a quiet retreat for them. It helps them to refocus.”
Mental wellness offerings like the Zen Zone can also be a recruitment incentive for prospective employees, Lien noted, and also aid in retaining current employees.
“All these perks we’re able to offer make the job worthwhile and make it so people don’t want to leave,” she said. “Job retention for us is getting better as we
Ginter said that in the coming year, HealthlinkNY will continue to work on developing new ideas and actions for employers to implement.
“I think people are hungry for this kind of thing,” he said. “It’s a good starting point. We see this as a living document that’s going to continue to evolve based on the ideas that our partner sites come up with and based on new research coming out.”