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Opinion: 4 ideas for upstream mental health education

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Employees’ mental well-being is on a lot of business leaders’ minds, according to a Forbes examination of 2024 workforce trends. In growing numbers, employees are demanding their mental health needs be addressed and destigmatized by their employers.

Our youngest workers lead this charge. A Society of Human Resource Management survey found 61% of Generation Z respondents said they’d strongly consider leaving their current job if offered another with significantly better mental health benefits.

It’s encouraging to see mental health included in a 2024 workplace trends piece, and equally discouraging to hear that while pandemic precautions have ebbed, increased mental health needs persist, particularly among Gen Z. In a SHRM article on workplace mental health, child psychiatrist Stuart Lustig said, “Gen Z are the loneliest, least resilient demographic alive today.”

But they aren’t alone. Some 76% of all U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in a 2022 U.S. Surgeon General’s survey, an increase of 17 percentage points from the 2020 survey. That’s why I’m asking nonprofit and business leaders to continue to prioritize investment in their employees’ mental health in 2024.

No single effort can tackle this, which is why we must move forward as a cross-sector coalition to address root causes with early intervention.

Upstream mental health education – meeting people where they are – is critical. Offering education and interventions where people spend their days can save lives. For most children, that’s in their schools. For many adults, that’s in their workplace environment.

For employers, addressing workforce mental health not only helps team members at a time when a majority of employees report their job affects their mental well-being, but also greatly improves workplace productivity. According to the National Safety Council, employers see a $4 return on investment for every $1 invested in mental health treatment. Fewer absences, lower medical costs and increased productivity are key factors for such a significant ROI, the NSC says. Not to mention workforce retention in a tight labor market.

Here are a few ways, big and small, you can invest:

  1. Support an employee assistance program. An EAP can provide employees with confidential counseling services, support and resources to share and process their mental health challenges. It also sends a strong message that you prioritize their mental well-being.
  2. Offer mental health training for team leaders. Being able to detect signs that an employee is struggling can help someone address their troubles before they reach a crisis stage. Initiatives like Burrell’s ONE movement can help area organizations customize such a training program for staff at no cost.
  3. Provide space for open communication about a once-taboo subject. People have become more open and accepting of mental health challenges they and others face. Leaders can set the tone by initiating, encouraging and normalizing discussions about mental health.
  4. Dedicate time for joy in your workplace. Focusing on small acts of joy for just seven minutes a day over a full week has been shown to increase a participant’s emotional well-being by 25%. Researchers at University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recently released these results from a massive citizen science effort called the Big Joy Project. You and your team can join in at GGIV.berkeley.edu/bigjoy by committing to micro-acts like writing a gratitude list, helping a friend or co-worker and meditating. Create space for those seven joyful minutes and see how they reverberate throughout the workday.

NSC offers a collection of resources to address mental health in the workplace, as well as a mental health employer cost calculator developed with researchers at the University of Chicago that provides an estimate based on company size, industry type and state location.

Locally, we continue to build on our mission to support the advancement of behavioral health and inspire stronger more resilient communities through connection, advocacy and philanthropy. Working together, we’ll achieve more.

Kristen Weaver is executive director of Burrell Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Burrell Behavioral Health and its parent company, Brightli. She can be reached at kristen.weaver@burrellcenter.com.

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