By Tina Hamilton
There is a significant likelihood that you or someone you know, is suffering with some form of mental illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime; 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness each year.
Suffering from a mental illness while attempting to maintain a job is challenging considering that common side effects are fatigue, difficulty with focus and the lack of energy to smile and be positive. Working can become equivalent to walking up a steep hill wearing a 100-pound backpack.
Mental health issues have increased since the pandemic’s onset. The good news is that many workplaces are zeroing in on how to recognize and accommodate their employees’ needs. Adding benefits such as telehealth with a mental health offering is becoming much more common. (My own company recently upgraded our telehealth option to offer unlimited, fully covered visits with telehealth mental health counselors and therapists to employees and their families.)
While it is admirable that employers are taking this issue seriously and investing in help for their employees, therapy, medication, support groups, and so on are not a magic wand. It takes time for employees to get the help they need to make effective change.
For insight on being an employee in a mental health crisis, I interviewed a woman I will call “Izzy.” Izzy struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2016 she witnessed a tragedy that resulted in the death of a young family member. She explains that on her toughest days – often not a singular day —just getting out of bed, showering and preparing for her day are exhausting. Once at work she says she has some relief being surrounded by her friendly coworkers. As the day goes on, she looks for an escape, bolting to the restrooms or a private place to sob in privacy. She explained that often she is not even sure why she is crying.
Imagine going through this. Perhaps you have suffered through the same.
However, Izzy has not discussed her problems with, nor sought help from her employer. The stigma and misunderstanding around mental health often keep employees from sharing. Izzy is no exception. Mental health is not discussed much at her workplace. She is unsure whether her disclosure would be accepted and supported, leaving her terrified of being looked down upon or potentially targeted for termination. The stress only compounds her PTSD.
Employers that want to offer support can follow some of the following tips:
First and most importantly, know the HIPPA requirements regarding what you can and cannot discuss with your employees.
Make the workplace a safe place, where employees are OK to open up without fear of backlash. (It might be the only safe, secure place in their lives.)
If possible, invest more in benefits and offer support services; many common offerings such as an EAP or telehealth are affordable or even free.
Manage employee workloads. Don’t add to potential mental health issues by overstressing your workforce. Employees need to have time to manage their lives.
Be a great place to work. Make people feel special. Look for signs of distress.Check in with your employees and show them you genuinely care with short conversations, smiles and recognizing and applauding their work performance.
If you are willing and feel safe to do so, be vulnerable and share your own experiences and understanding of mental health issues.
I had a 35-year-old son who died by suicide in 2017. He worked for a midsized company in Texas. I had the job of visiting his employer and collecting his personal items. My son was married with two children and his families’ health insurance was covered by his employer. The company had no protocol for the situation. They explained to me that my son’s wife and children were immediately terminated from his health insurance —no exception. They tasked me with contacting my son’s life insurance to determine eligibility and offered no help in doing so. I could go on.
I share this not to draw attention to my situation, but rather to reflect on how some companies do not accommodate mental illness. Some focus on risk mitigation and costs over the best interest of employees and their families. Employers: Be the solution! Employees: If you feel you need help and you believe it appropriate and safe, share a copy of this article with your employer.Find a way to get the help you need, if not at work, through one of many public services. You’re worth it.
As an employer of 35 team members who reside in 11 states, I find that being kind and friendly and showing authentic care for my employees is extremely well received. I simply treat employees as human beings and give them all thatI possibly can so that they feel secure, cared for and appreciated.
If you need help
Here are some resources if you think you or someone you know needs help.
- Call 911 if someone is in immediate danger
- Call 988 to get connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Get 24/7 help from the Crisis Text Line. Text PA to 741741 to start a conversation
- Pennsylvania’s Support & Referral Helpline connects Pennsylvanians with mental and emotional support and local resources. 855-284-2494 (TTY: 724-631-5600).
- And a useful tool from United Way to identify specific resources:www.pa211.org/get-help/mental-health/
All these things matter. I wish you all good health.
This article was originally published in the Allentown Morning Call on Sunday February 12, 2023.