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5 Steps for Creating a Mental Health-Friendly Work Culture

A woman sitting on a couch talking to another woman.

In a tight labor market, employers can improve their ability to hire and retain qualified workers by supporting mental health programs in the workplace.  

"We all know someone who has struggled with a mental health condition," said Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia at a Department of Labor (DOL) panel discussion with mental health experts. The DOL event took place at the end of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

"We are in an extraordinary period right now for the U.S. economy and American workers," Scalia added, noting that the current unemployment rate for workers with disabilities is the lowest on record.

"Employers are anxious to attract and retain skilled workers," he said, and "workers with disabilities can offer employers the right talent, right now."

The DOL's mission is to help foster, promote and develop the welfare of the nation's workers. "Part and parcel to this is promoting a mental health-friendly work environment," said Deputy Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella.

Panelists noted that when workers struggle with mental health conditions, the signs are not always apparent, and even when a condition is disclosed, there may be a stigma attached. Panelists said employers can create a mental health-friendly workplace by focusing on the "4 A's," a framework advocated by the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN). One panelist suggested adding a fifth "A" to the plan.

1. Awareness

One in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health condition each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"Work is a critical component of recovery for someone who is experiencing a mental illness or a mental health crisis," said Jennifer Sheehy, deputy assistant secretary for the DOL's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Manager education is a good way to support mental health wellness in the workplace, according to EARN. Managers can be trained to recognize the signs of mental health issues and to create a supportive and inclusive environment.

2. Accommodation

Reasonable accommodations can help workers with disabilities—including those with mental health conditions—perform their jobs more efficiently. Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network, said the types of accommodations that may help workers "really run the gamut" and include flexible scheduling, softer or brighter lighting and relocation of the employee's workstation. Additionally, an employee may need time off to adjust to medication.

"Managers and supervisors need to feel supported when they are working through an accommodation with an employee," she said.

Sheehy noted that finding the right accommodation might take some trial and error.

3. Assistance

Certified peer-support specialists can help workers rebuild trust and access the services they need, said Patrick Hendry, vice president of peer advocacy, supports and services for Mental Health America. Specialists may have diagnosed mental health conditions themselves and are trained to help others succeed. "Peer support is one of the fastest-growing labor forces in the country," Hendry said. He said helping employees get back to work is particularly important because work is "part of our identity."

4. Access

Employers can help workers access the tools they need to manage mental health conditions through an employee assistance program (EAP). The role of an EAP is to give both the employer and the employee options when a situation arises, said Greg DeLapp, chief executive officer of the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association. He encouraged employers to do more than just point to a policy or program. He suggested that managers have an open discussion with employees and ask them about what they need to succeed in the workplace.

5. Acceptance

Andy Imparato, executive director for the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, said he would add this fifth "A," acceptance, to EARN's list. He spoke of his own experience with bipolar disorder. Employees who are dealing with long-term mental health conditions should "accept that it's real; accept that this is something we now have to incorporate into our [experiences] and figure out how to manage," he said. "Also, the people around us have to accept that."

Employers must accept that some of their high-performers have experience with mental illness, Imparato added, and he encouraged people to be open about their own experiences to help remove the stigma and show what's possible. 


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