We know that the conversation around mental health has improved somewhat in the last ten years or so. While we see more discussion in community settings though, people still do not always feel safe talking about mental health at work. Many workplaces still lack open support and advocacy of mental health for employees. Specifically, many managers do not know how to go about working with employees with common mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.

Addressing these issues in a more open manner can serve to not just help employees thrive, but it can help increase productivity and engagement. Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit group published a workplace study last year that looked at the prevalence of mental health challenges in the workplace. Typically, studies of this sort considered specific diagnoses or general stress levels. Instead of looking at specific diagnoses, this study asked workers if they had experienced symptoms from a list of very common mental health conditions, along with other information about the priority of mental health at work and the engagement or awareness leaders showed around mental health. The results were that less than 50% of people felt that employee mental health was a priority for the company. Not surprisingly, 86% thought the company culture should support employee mental health.

Without more education for managers and implementation of well-rounded employee wellness programs people are far less likely to self-identify with a mental health condition. An interesting note from the study above is that employees reported feeling most uncomfortable talking about mental health conditions with HR and senior leaders, even though senior leaders were just as likely to struggle with mental health symptoms as the others participating in the study. Millennials, Gen Zers and LGBTQ employees were more likely to experience mental health symptoms for longer durations and were also more open to diagnosis, treatment, and talking about them at work.

To adjust to the next-generation workplace that is upon us, mental health needs to emerge as the ‘new diversity topic’ for workplaces. To make this happen, the things companies need to do are not new at all. Important initiatives must always come from the top. Acknowledging that mental health is as much an issue in the C-suite, as it is on the front lines is a critical piece of this effort. Particularly with regard to mental health, finding ways to turn leaders into allies by modeling vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness is the best way to start. From there, the workplace gold standards of continuous education-training-support will ensure that acceptance and understanding will begin to permeate the workplace.

The importance of supporting employees with mental health challenges is increasing as the impacts show to be far-reaching. Results of the study above point to an ongoing ‘generational shift’ in awareness, in that 50% of Millenials and 75% of GenZ’s reporting having left jobs for mental health reasons. What we have learned is that that creating a workplace culture of support improves recruitment, engagement and retention while doing nothing serves to reduce all three.

Andrea Mory is a management and human resources professional who resides in North Texas. She has collaborated across Texoma over the last 25 years with mental health providers and employers to develop training and education programs related to behavioral health. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.