Recent years have witnessed a steady rise in the public interest in mental health, particularly the intersection of mental health and work. Perhaps an all-time high was reached last year, when the pandemic forced most of us to readjust the way we work and live, leading to concerns over consequences of long-term social separation and life under lockdown.
Two factors have facilitated this development. First, a slow but progressive destigmatization of mental health as a topic of discussion. It has become generally accepted that “mental health is health”, and that the challenges we face in this domain are not equivalent to moral or spiritual problems.
Second, there’s much wider acknowledgement of the impact of working conditions, job satisfaction, workplace relations and other aspects of work on mental health (and vice-versa) than ever before. It’s become common knowledge that mental health can be negatively affected by adverse events at work and that mental health challenges, regardless of origin, may have a negative impact on productivity and workplace interactions.
Having said that, there’s still plenty of debate in the business community around what exactly employers should do to support workers who may be at risk or are already experiencing mental health problems.
Preventive Support as the First Step
Among companies that see employee mental health as a key issue (which, speaking globally, are now in the majority), there are two general support approaches.
The first is preventive and consists of creating an employee-friendly (or employee-focused) workplace, where people feel welcome, safe, comfortable and appreciated.
There are a number of measures that fall squarely into this approach. From promoting core values and a sense of a shared purpose, encouraging empathy, support and collaboration, to allowing sufficient leisure time (and opportunities – think ping-pong tables or gaming rooms), flexible working hours, remote work, team building activities and plenty of other smaller perks – the list is almost inexhaustible.
The thinking here is simple: employees spend around a third of their day, and around a half of their waking hours, at the office or at work. The less those hours are filled with stress and discomfort, the lesser the risk of mental health problems occurring in the long run. Also, the more comfortable employees feel while they work, the less they’ll exhibit typical problems related to productivity, such as presenteeism and lack of focus, or be at less risk of engaging in conflict with their teammates.
While the assumptions behind this approach are valid and actions built upon them are generally valuable and effective, it is also incomplete if the goal is to address the issue of employee mental health in its fullness. Here are some reasons this is the case:
- No matter how much work is put into it, no workplace can ever be perfect and meet the specific needs of every individual. Due to these imperfections, challenges related to how employees feel and behave will eventually arise in every company. Since this approach is preventive in nature, such challenges may be left unaddressed.
- Employees often come to work burdened with stress originating in their private lives. Despite its benefits, fine-tuning the workplace can do little to address those problems at the root. Yet, there’s a serious risk that if that stress is left unaddressed, it will affect how people do their work.
- Sometimes, employee focus is marketed as a perk, i.e. used as a hook to attract new talent and make them feel sufficiently comfortable so they’d want to stay. This, however, could be seen as a lack of genuineness in terms of concern for employee wellbeing and can make the sense of psychological safety incomplete. Paradoxically, the effect of employee focus as a perk is limited when it is perceived mainly as a perk.
To summarize, what I’ve dubbed “the preventive approach” to employee mental health, while setting a good foundation, is incomplete. It does not account for individual differences, does not provide solutions for when problems do arise in the workplace (or are imported from the private sphere), and may have its edge blunted due to poor branding. To make care for employee wellbeing fully genuine and effective, it’s necessary to add another layer of support.
Going the Extra Mile With In-House Mental Health Counseling
There are different courses of action employers take to fill in the gaps left by the preventive approach. Most often, they offer to include mental health care in workers’ healthcare plans (in countries in which healthcare is not publicly funded) or design Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which provide support in dealing with (personal or professional) challenges that may affect employee mental health and productivity.
However, even these solutions may have some (albeit, much smaller) shortcomings:
- Working with healthcare providers or utilizing EAPs may mean that employees will interact with their counselor off-site, i.e. in the counselor’s office. That requires spending time going to and from the counselor and setting appointments after working hours. This then reduces the chances of going to appointments, particularly when challenges are seen as bearable and less serious.
- Since external vendors are likely servicing clients from outside of their company as well, employees may need to wait to get an appointment and may have less insight into who they’ll be working with. This also may negatively impact their motivation to start with counseling.
- When a problem an employee is facing originates in the workplace, particularly when it is systemic in nature, it may be difficult for counselors who don’t understand the environment the client is coming from to grasp the full picture and provide meaningful guidance.
In other words, even smaller problems with how mental health care services are set up may significantly impact employees’ willingness to utilize them and reduce their quality. The obvious next question is: can these obstacles be overcome as well? Can interacting with the counselor be made more accessible and effective?
Actually, yes – by doing something that requires employers to take the ubiquitous self-help advice and leave their comfort zone: bringing the counselors into the company.
There are two ways companies typically engage in-house counselors. Some outsource the service to an external provider who sets up shop on the company premises, while others hire counselors as their own employees. In either case, there are dedicated counselors working only with that company’s employees, in a walkable distance (literally next door), not requiring employees to set appointments outside working hours.
There are many advantages to this “final touch” in taking care of employee mental health. Here are the most important ones.
Improved sense of psychological safety
Having readily available, dedicated, full-time in-house counselors goes a long way in signalling that worker mental health, and wellbeing in general, really is a company priority. Any kind of investment in employee wellbeing contributes to this, but bringing counselors in, and especially making them a part of the company, gives the whole effort a more personal touch. That kind of atmosphere contributes to a sense of psychological safety and serves as a stress buffer.
Encouraging mental health self-care
Bringing mental health professionals on site sends a clear message that mental health is not taboo and that open discussions of issues related to mental health are not just ok, but welcome. This increases the chances of employees starting to take their mental health seriously and utilizing support services. That, in and of itself, is a big win for both the company and its employees, regardless of whether they opt to use services provided by the employer or not.
For those employees who, despite having access to in-house counselors, still want to utilize external services, the counselor can serve as a guide, explaining where specific services can be found, what can be expected, at what cost, etc. This also significantly increases the chance of employees taking care of their mental health.
Making mental health services more accessible
With counselors working on company premises, it is not necessary for the client/employee to spend time traveling to and from the counselors office and set appointments after working hours. This also increases the chance that they will utilize the service, particularly in those incidents where they need short-term counseling (i.e. where they’re not dealing with chronic problems or diagnosable mental disorders).
Better quality of mental health support
By virtue of being in touch with the people who belong to the same social ecosystem, in-house counselors have a better understanding of the context that may be contributing to the issues employees want to discuss. They are also better suited to understand how the challenges an employee is dealing with can reflect on other workers and the employee’s relationship with them.
Looking at it from a different angle, employees who wish to begin with counseling can make a better informed decision about whether the in-house counselor is the right choice for them. It’s easier to get feedback and advice from those who’ve already used their services, but it’s also easier to get direct experience since the counselor is more readily available.
Wider utilization of counseling outcomes
Insights that the in-house counselor obtains by virtue of having close contact with a large number of employees allows them to consult the management (fully guarding individual clients’ confidentiality) on how to make their workplace more supportive of mental health. Also, these insights can be translated into educational materials available to all employees or disseminated through workshops and lectures. This is more cost-effective than hiring external consultants or educators, who may not have the same depth of insight and understanding of what’s relevant for an organization.
Improved external engagement
Similar to the effects these initiatives have internally, external audiences – potential hires, clients and the public in general – will appreciate efforts put into supporting workers’ wellbeing and development. Potential hires will want to be a part of a team in which they’ll feel safe and supported, while clients will appreciate the extra drive to attract, keep and develop quality hires.
In-House Mental Health Counseling at Maestral
For us at Maestral Solutions, discussions of mental health support for employees are not just an intellectual exercise. We speak from experience.
In line with one of our core values, “People First”, we introduced in-house mental health counseling as a service roughly 4 years ago. Initially, that was a service our teammates with backgrounds in psychology and counseling, who worked in positions with much broader mandates, offered while also performing their other duties. Recently, however, we’ve decided to introduce a position of a Workplace Counselor, a standalone role focused entirely on providing mental health support in different formats. The main responsibilities in this role include:
- Individual 121 counseling (per demand and during events/periods with higher risks of stress)
- Team coaching (when requested by team leaders, which typically happens in events of internal conflict)
- Education (through lectures, workshops and production of educational content)
- Consulting (in development of procedures, policies and thought leadership content, to align our messaging and practical changes in the company with our commitment to mental health support).
What are our expectations? Well, even before, while the service was just one of several areas of responsibility for teammates with psychology training, the employee response was quite good. It took us some time to do away with stereotypes and stigma related to working with a psychologist, but we were largely successful in that quest. Also, the company leadership has so far confirmed the expected benefits in terms of employee engagement and improved productivity.
Now that in-house counseling is enabled through a standalone position, we expect these effects to intensify. More people will be open to utilizing the service due to an improved sense of confidentiality that comes with the independence of the role from other teams. The impetus to make this type of change came from another of our core values, “Culture of Trust”. Also, we expect people to be less hesitant to reach out due to fears of “usurping” the time the counselor would otherwise assign to other, non-counseling tasks. Additionally, there will be more room for counselors to act as educators and consultants. In other words, we expect the service to scale, both in terms of number of people and teams served and in terms of quality of service.
Could other companies learn from us? Maybe. Actually, at least three broad insights we gleaned from our experience could be of value to pretty much any employer.
The first is: mental health is one of employees’ basic needs. Employees cannot flourish and will increasingly choose not to stay in environments which are detrimental or unsupportive of this need. Therefore, mental health support must be understood as much more than a perk.
The second: there’s no one-size fits all approach to implementing this type of support. What’s important is that the process is individualized as much as possible, tailored to the needs of the specific company and its people. In-house counseling is what has worked for us so far; it may or may not work for others.
The third insight leans on the previous one: avoid paralysis by analysis. Make the first step, even if you don’t know in advance how every detail of this effort will play out. Because, despite how much you try, you can’t know, not before you start making your first steps. What’s important is that you start and never stop supporting your people – your persistence on that path will eventually help you unveil the optimal way to do that.