Mental Health in the Workplace: How Leaders Can Support Employees

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Many small businesses rely on a relatively small core group of employees to conduct the work necessary for daily operations. As a caring small business leader, you want the best for your employees and their overall health. When an employee is struggling with mental health concerns, it can impact his ability to work and your ability to conduct business efficiently and profitably.

Being intentional about nurturing positive mental health in your small business can help ensure your employees have the support they need and that your team is solid and stable while you grow and reach your business goals.

Mental Health in the Workplace: Statistics

In the United States, mental health concerns are among the most common health concerns reported by adults. Since many adults spend a great deal of time at work, small business owners are in a unique position to spot and help support an employee facing mental health concerns. The mental health statistics for adults in the U.S. are staggering:

  • One in five adults reported mental illness in 2016.
  • 71% of adults reported symptoms of stress.
  • One in 25 adults lives with a serious mental illness
  • Three quarters of all chronic mental illness begins by age 24. 
  • One in 100 adults lives with schizophrenia
  • 6.1 million U.S. adults live with bipolar disorder.
  • 16 million U.S. adults live with major depression.
  • 42 million U.S. adults live with anxiety disorders

With 63% of U.S. adults active in the workforce, your small business is likely impacted by mental illness in one or more ways. Even if your employees do not personally struggle with mental illness, the chances of a family member struggling are high, and this can also impact their performance at work.

Mental Health in the Workplace: Laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides protections for employees who struggle with psychiatric disabilities. Employers are expected to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with psychiatric disabilities. For instance, if your accountant has a psychiatric service dog to help mitigate her PTSD disability, you would be responsible for accommodating this need. If an employee needs to work four 10-hour days to leave one day per week free for psychiatric treatment, you are expected to make this reasonable accommodation.

If your employees have family members with serious mental illness or psychiatric disabilities, these family members could require specialized care that results in missed work. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires small- and medium-sized businesses with 50 or more employees to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave per year to care for family. If your team is smaller than this, consider how you might still accommodate the needs of employees dealing with a mental health crisis within their family.

Mental Health in the Workplace: Activities

One way to help destigmatize mental health in the workplace is to intentionally engage in discussion and activities with your team. Workplace Strategies for Mental Health offers weekly "take your break" emails with suggestions for nurturing positive mental health:

  • Deep breathing
  • Mindfulness
  • Stretching
  • Meditation
  • Nutrition
  • Creative expression

You might also consider planning a time to take mental health first aid classes as part of ongoing training with your employees. During this training, your team will be equipped with skills to help someone struggling with:

  • Panic attacks
  • Acute psychosis
  • Nonsuicidal self-harm
  • Overdose
  • Drug or alcohol withdrawal
  • Trauma response
  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings

Learning mental health first aid will equip your workforce to spot mental health struggles in their coworkers, respond appropriately and help get the person needed help.

Reducing Risk in the Workplace

Becoming aware of mental health statistics and being educated to spot the signs in your employees are ways to reduce risk in the workplace, but prevention goes deeper than this. Pay attention to workload to make sure it is fair and that goals are realistically achievable. When necessary, spread out responsibilities among employees when one person is overwhelmed and encourage people to step away when needed.

Healthy work-life blend is vital to encouraging good mental health among your employees and ensuring they are ready and able to work when they're on the clock. This means making breaks and vacation time mandatory and modeling this behavior for your crew. Health incentive programs can help your employees track their moods as well as more consistently participate in activities shown to reduce mental health risks, like exercise, good nutrition and meditation.

Foster Healthy Relationships

Make it a top priority to develop healthy relationships with your employees that go beyond discussing projections and the bottom line. Encourage friendships within the workplace so that people feel comfortable sharing the highs and lows of work and their personal lives. When you foster a sense of community, people are more likely to feel fulfilled at work and are less likely to experience toxic stress that contributes toward worsening mental health symptoms.

Provide Mental Health Resources

Sometimes, employees need more mental health support than they can gain through a supportive work environment, education and a reasonable workload. Since many employees spend more waking hours at work than at home, consider creating a space in your break room with pamphlets and connections to mental health crisis resources, such as:

  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Text Line: Text TALK to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline:


  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Locator: 1-800-662-4357  

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

You might also include information about prescription assistance programs that could help them more easily afford psychiatric assistance programs. Your local United Way might keep a listing of local resources and programs that you could have on hand in the office. In addition, consider gathering contact information for other practitioners who specialize in biofeedback, neurofeedback, therapy, psychiatry and more.

Mental Health Benefits

When you start to build your employee base, one expense to consider is that of offering comprehensive mental health benefits on whatever level your growing budget will allow. If you value creating a work environment that fosters positive mental health, consider including some of the following benefits to your employees:

  • Health insurance that covers mental health care
  • Free access to apps like HeadSpace and Happify
  • Parental leave
  • Paid time off
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Resiliency training
  • Stress management seminars
  • Flexible work times and locations
  • Social events or clubs

Alternative Mental Health Services

Try taking a poll of your employees to find out what alternative mental health services they would utilize if they were easier to access. Some health insurance plans cover alternative mental health care services, while others do not, so find out if your employees want to access any of the following services:

  • HRV biofeedback
  • Qigong
  • Neurofeedback
  • Chiropractic care
  • Naturopathic psychiatry
  • Alpha stim treatment
  • Acupuncture
  • Therapeutic massage
  • Audio therapy programs
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Movement therapy

When you know what your employees want, consider choosing plans that support these modalities, offer health savings plans with matching or negotiate special rates with local practitioners to help your employees access care. When it comes to mental health in the workplace, more support and options are almost always better than less. Remember that if you cannot offer everything, you can still offer something and provide access to resources for mental health care that truly make a difference.