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How We Rewrote Our Company’s Mental Health Policy

July 19th, 2016

by Kelsey Meyer
JULY 19, 2016

How We Rewrote Our Company’s Mental Health Policy

jul16-11-110872925-850x478Imagine how you’d react if one of your employees crawled her way into your office with a broken leg or became visibly ill at her desk. You wouldn’t ignore her physical health or tell her that she really needs to keep her personal problems at home; you’d help her to the emergency room and ask how you can help during her recovery.

The truth is that your employees’ health is rarely as obvious as a broken bone or the flu. Sometimes, your employees silently struggle with illnesses that you never see — but their need for inclusive, supportive healthcare and adequate accommodations is just as great.

Last year, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that one in five adults in the U.S. — about 43 million people — lived with a diagnosable mental illness within the previous year and one in 25 had a “serious functional impairment due to a mental illness.”

Regardless of whether you acknowledge it, at least one person on your team is living with a mental illness right now. And as someone with a family history of mental illness, I can tell you that while it’s an inherently personal battle, mental illness’s effects aren’t limited to your employees’ personal lives. In fact, the World Health Organization found that without improved treatment, the world will lose 12 billion workdays by 2030 to depression and anxiety disorders alone.

Without a proper mental health plan in place, your company is not only neglecting the well-being of its employees, but it’s also missing out on the significant returns that fully healthy employees can deliver.

As a leader in your organization, you have the authority and responsibility to improve your policy to better support employees. Here’s how my company, Influence & Co., wrote an entirely new mental health policy and openly discussed it with our team — and how you can do the same:

Step 1: Define Your Goals
First, I partnered with our director of human resources to discuss the most important elements for this policy to include. Above all, we wanted to acknowledge that mental illness affects everyone differently, to use inclusive language, and to ensure all employees feel supported by the new plan.

To do that, invite employees to directly communicate with you their ideas for a mental health policy. Members of my team started sharing their ideas with me last year after we returned from our company retreat, where my discussing my family’s history of mental illness during a short team exercise opened the door for discussions on the topic.

Including some of your employees in this process, whether through an activity at your next retreat or during a private meeting, can give you valuable insight into exactly how you can reach the goals you define.

Step 2: Research and Write
With goals and employee feedback in mind, your HR director should gain a frame of reference by researching the language and accommodations other companies’ policies include. From there, she should dig into what mental health organizations recommend for supporting people living with mental illnesses.

This step is especially important if, like my company, you’ve never had a comprehensive mental health policy on record. Even if you do, regular research keeps you up-to-date on the latest from mental health experts and leading organizations to ensure that the policy’s language and accommodations best support your employees.

After her research, your HR director should draft your policy. Remember, it’s all a work in progress at this point. Limit your involvement to the review process, and encourage her to incorporate your initial ideas in a way that promotes your values and works with your other policies.
Step 3: Consult Your Attorney
Once we had our draft prepared, we sent it to our HR attorney, who provided additional expertise and recommendations to ensure that what the policy suggested and promised was legal and aligned with our existing policies. He helped us revise the language and include specific information about confidentiality. The last thing you want is to spend resources creating a policy you can’t legally introduce or enforce. Get feedback from your legal counsel before moving on.

Step 4: Consult a Mental Health Advocate
Because we didn’t have a mental health professional on staff, we knew we needed to consult an expert. Sarah Jo Crawford, mental health advocate and founder of Sarah Jo Crawford Consulting, played an integral role in helping our team refine and implement our policy. Her involvement was the most important component of this process.

“Most employers understand how to accommodate traditional disabilities but feel out of their element when faced with mental health concerns,” Crawford said. “While no leader should ever feel compelled to provide all the solutions, providing assistance and secure systems of communication is just as feasible as incorporating a health and wellness program.”

To help us, Crawford provided guidance on appropriate language, open communication techniques, accommodation options, and creative solutions for working alongside our employees to support them. A mental health advocate like her can illuminate details you may never have considered, which can mean the difference between a policy that’s a nice gesture and a policy that’s truly effective.

Step 5: Introduce Your Policy and Offer Training
Don’t risk your employees misunderstanding specific policy benefits or accommodations by rolling out your new plan in an email. Create an event or host a workshop around it to clarify exactly what this policy means for each team member and how it came to be.

“Talking about mental health can be scary and uncomfortable, but I’ve found that opening up the conversation in a safe place facilitates bonding and switches the tone of the conversation from a series of shameful confessions to an open, collaborative, and solution-focused environment,” Crawford said.

For this step, I recommend inviting your mental health advocate back for assistance; the training workshops Crawford created were the most impactful parts of the process for our team, and we couldn’t have done it without her.

My team decided to host two workshops: one exclusively for our senior leadership team and direct supports, and one for all employees.

Train your leadership team first. Before you introduce your plan to your whole company, make sure managers and direct supports understand their roles in implementing the policy. With your mental health advocate and HR director, take your leaders through each point of the plan and clearly explain what is — and, more important, is not — expected of them. While they should feel prepared to support co-workers and answer policy questions, they shouldn’t feel responsible for “fixing” any co-workers’ mental illnesses.

Train your employees. Introduce the policy to your entire team, and pair it with training on mental health in the workplace. Our advocate gave a presentation that covered recognizing signs of mental illness in yourself, asking for help when you need it, finding the right professionals, adapting your work life to accommodate illness, and supporting others who are struggling. With this new knowledge and a policy in place, our whole team felt more prepared and supported.
Both sessions encouraged our team to talk openly about mental health, and I received overwhelmingly positive feedback from leadership and employees alike. Members of our direct support team reached out to say they felt much more empowered to help in mental health situations. One employee even said: “I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the mental health policy. So few people — much less employers — consider the importance of mental health in the workplace. I love working for a company that is so progressive and open in employee healthcare. I feel more comfortable and valued as an employee.”

Employee wellness is not a new concept. Companies around the country offer employees free gym memberships and yoga classes and incentives for healthy diets; what’s sorely lacking is an equal focus on mental health programs. As a company leader, you have the power to change your organization’s attitude and support system around mental health for the better — and at least one of your employees is waiting for you to realize it. The time is now.

Kelsey Meyer is the president of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency that specializes in helping companies showcase their expertise through thought leadership. Influence & Co.’s clients range from venture-backed startups to Fortune 500 brands.

This article is about PERSONNEL POLICIES



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