As mental health becomes priority in the workplace, St. Clair County CMH leads employers by example

The struggle to destigmatize mental health has been an ongoing battle and those with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses have long suffered in silence.

No one would wish to go through the past two years of the pandemic again; however, there’s little doubt that it accelerated the conversation about the importance of mental health faster than could have been accomplished had the pandemic not happened. While there’s still a great deal of progress to be made when it comes to these conversations, one area that’s seen a lot of focus is mental health in the workplace.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of adults aged 18-44 who received any mental health treatment in the past 12 months increased between 2019 and 2022, from 18.5% to 23.2%.

“We’ve seen a lot of people leave long-term employers to go work for someone else,” says Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH). “So, I think it's important as an employer to keep up with that and to meet the needs of employees.”

In fact, the 2021 State of Workplace Mental Health in the U.S. Report found that 50% of employees, 81% of which were in the Gen Z category, have left a job in part due to mental health. It also found that employees reported functioning at 72% of their full capability over the past year when they took into account their mental health.

“If you don't address employee mental health issues, it's going to cost you more money in the long run,” says Debra Johnson, CEO at SCCCMH. “Employees who have mental health issues have decreases in productivity and an increase in absenteeism. They just won't be as effective on the job.”

Debra Johnson, CEO at St. Clair County Community Mental Health.Incorporating ways to improve mental health in the workplace is nothing new for St. Clair County Community Mental Health. Experts at the organization share their experience and offer advice for employers who are seeking ways to improve how they support staff mental health. 

Johnson says one of the key actions employers need to do in order to support their employees’ mental health is to recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health. One way SCCCMH supports its employees is by allowing them to take days off for their mental health.

“Quite a while ago, we acknowledged and said that it’s okay to take a mental health day if your mental health is suffering and you need to take a break,” Johnson says. “We know that one of the reasons people don't seek mental health treatment earlier is because of the stigma associated with it. People need to know that people don't choose mental health issues, just like they don't choose physical health issues.”

Employers can also create an environment that supports mental health in the workplace by having spaces for employees to comfortably relax if they’re feeling stressed.

“We have a decompression room - a room that has positive things on the wall, comfortable seating, and charging stations,” Johnson says. “It's a place where people can go relax and take a break from what's going on in the day and the rule is that you're not allowed to do work in there ... That’s not what the room is; it's for people just to decompress and relax.”

Employers can also provide various benefits and perks that support mental health, such as Employee Appreciation Days, recognition programs, and wellness options such as gym memberships or yoga classes. Johnson says St. Clair County Community Mental Health provides its employees with a YMCA of the Blue Water Area benefit.

“We know that physical exercise and all of the other things that the YMCA is about can help reduce stress and support you in improving your overall wellness,” she says.

She says they also allow employees to flex their hours, something that people may find even more beneficial now in a post-pandemic environment as they’ve gotten used to having some flexibility working from home.

Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at St. Clair County Community Mental Health“If you want to go to your child’s Halloween party, for example, you can flex out a few hours and work later another day,” she explains. “The flexibility within the workplace is to really ensure that people get the work-life balance that they need.” 

Having a good work-life balance is also something that’s important to people as they go back to work – whether remotely, in the office, or in a hybrid environment – because throughout the pandemic they had the opportunity to experience quality time with their family, says Gallagher.

“There’s a different attitude, I think, regarding work and work-life balance and employers are having to work extra hard at that right now,” she explains. “During COVID, I think people realized that maybe they had been away from their family too much and don't want to return to that pre-COVID state where they’re so busy and have no time for their family.”

No matter which policies you implement for your employees, at the end of the day, Johnson says taking the time to find ways to support your employees’ mental health is worth it for everyone involved.

“Everybody knows that stress and anxiety can contribute to diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity, and all those kinds of things,” says Gallagher. “So, if you don't address mental health, it's going to cost you more in the long run and it benefits employers to be more proactive with it.”

For support or to learn more about the resources offered through St. Clair County Community Mental Health, visit scccmh.org or call SCCCMH’s Access Center at (888) 225-4447.