We all know how important good mental health is to our workforce, especially after a pandemic. We also know we have to offer all levels of mental health services to meet the needs of our entire workforce. But what exactly is mental health literacy, and why is it so important?
“It’s an organization that has a shared understanding of what it means to feel and function well within the organization, or simply put, it’s a company culture that prioritizes mental health,” according to Sarah Tobin, head of talent development at Calm, in the webinar Building Mental Health Literacy at Your Organization.
There are five core components of mental health literacy:
- Understanding the importance of mental health. That translates to knowing your why and asking your leaders to know that why.
- Recognizing early behaviors and triggers. An example of this would be to have checks and balances across your teams and across your organization where you can identify pockets or trends, such as underuse of paid time off.
- Decreasing stigma. This centers around encouraging leaders to share their stories about how they’ve managed their mental health in the past. The goal is to normalize the use of benefits such as employee assistance programs, preventive measures or tools that you have for well-being, like meditating before the start of a meeting.
- Knowing how, when and where to get help. It’s important to make it clear, time and time again, where employees can find the resources you have to offer and normalize their use.
- Ensuring managers and employees know how to support each other when facing challenges. How will you equip your managers to handle team members who might be experiencing burnout? Managers don’t need to be therapists or counselors to do this. They just need to know where to direct their team if they need that support.
Mental health literacy assessment
This model can be used as a building block to help employers identify what areas they want to focus on to build a healthy workplace culture. But to help assess your organization’s mental health literacy, Tobin suggests rating on a scale of one (lowest score) to five (highest score) where your company stands on the following statements:
- Our HR policies promote an environment of positive mental health.
- We make decisions with employees’ mental health in mind.
- The company creates opportunities to share mental health concerns freely and openly.
- Our leaders understand early warning signs of mental health illness.
- Our leaders know when, where and how to access mental health offerings for themselves and their teams.
Improve mental health literacy
Very few companies get a perfect score of 25, and that isn’t the goal. The purpose is to see where you have gaps in your mental health literacy and fill them. Here are a few ways you can do just that:
- Build a psychologically safe environment. Employees need to know it’s OK to not be OK. And one way to do that is by showing vulnerability from the top down. Recognize that your organization’s mental health literacy rests on your leaders. Without their buy-in, the program won’t be successful. “I think it starts by people being able to – at a senior level or within an HR team – talk about their mental health and wellness journeys,” says Scott Domann, chief people officer at Calm.
Even if a leader hasn’t experienced a psychological issue, it’s still important for them to empathize. Maybe they’ve experienced burnout or maybe they’ve supported a friend or family member who’s been going through a tough time. They can use those experiences to understand and empathize with their employees.
“Having those conversations and being able to engage people in very real authentic dialogue is important,” adds Domann. “And that goes to everything you’re offering from a benefit through to how you engage in these conversations and teach people how to engage in these conversations. Because they’re not organic and natural to many of us. We had to learn how to do this.”
- Recognize the signs. Leaders and managers need to learn how to be true active listeners so they can recognize the behaviors and triggers. No one is asking leaders to be armchair psychologists, notes Domann. “It’s about being able to see where and think about how people are struggling and saying ‘OK, I think I know what you’re dealing with.’” And being able to help them access the resources they need and set them up for success.
And as an organization, it’s vital to do engagement surveys a few times a year so you understand where your employees are and what they’re thinking. Because what you think they’re thinking, and what they’re thinking don’t often line up. In fact, fewer than one in four employees feels strongly that their company cares about their well-being, according to a Gallup poll.
- Create a companywide action plan. Making employee well-being a No. 1 priority must be a companywide effort that starts at the executive level. They need to put it in writing, make all their leaders aware of the plan and understand the “why” behind it. And when doing this ask hard questions, such as what’ll happen if we don’t invest in employee well-being?
For years employees were told they had to separate their personal and professional lives, but that isn’t easy. People do their best work when they can bring their authentic selves to work. Now, the pandemic has opened employees’ eyes to choose themselves.
“They’ve chosen themselves in terms of how they want to work, whom they want to work for, where they want to work,” said Domann. “And I think by people asking themselves those questions they’ve more accurately been able to openly state this is how I want my mental health supported, not just in my personal life, but I want to know that it’s valued at work as well. I want to know the company that I’m choosing values my mental health and has the resources needed to support it.”
By improving your organization’s mental health literacy, employees will see it’s OK to not be OK, and seek the help they need to be their authentic selves at work.