When we think about what constitutes a healthy individual, we tend to focus almost exclusively on physical health — someone who eats healthy foods, exercises regularly, and avoids bad habits like smoking. Unfortunately, this perception ignores the fact that even the most physically fit individuals can suffer from debilitating mental health issues.
World Mental Health Day falls in October, so now is a good time to discuss what business leaders and entrepreneurs are doing to prioritize their mental health and that of their employees. Mental health is important for numerous reasons, including its connection to physical health, but because it can be less outwardly visible, it is often overlooked.
One in five Americans suffer from some sort of mental health condition, but more than half don’t receive treatment. Recognizing this issue 10 years ago, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in order to make mental health and substance abuse treatment as accessible as care for other medical conditions. But a risk management and health care consulting company report last year found that patients continue to struggle when it comes to accessing treatment.
According to an International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey, over two-thirds of employers said mental health and substance abuse issues have contributed to absenteeism and tardiness at their organizations. In addition, more than 60 percent of the survey’s respondents said these issues impact the physical health, overall job performance, focus, and productivity of their employees.
You might be wondering what you can do to encourage your employees to focus on their mental health. Consider how the following entrepreneurs and businesses leaders are making mental health a priority for their teams. After all, prioritizing mental health is not only the right thing to do ethically, but given that your employees are your biggest asset, it’s the right thing to do for your bottom line as well.
1. Elizabeth Falconer, Owner of Position by Design, Inc.
Considering her father served as the head of psychiatry at Duke University, Elizabeth Falconer probably has a keener awareness of mental health than most people. And she knows firsthand how mental health issues can impact your work. After losing her father and two grandmothers and stepping in to care for her mother as she died of pancreatic cancer — all in a span of 14 months — Falconer found herself unable to work full-time. Ultimately, her decision to take some time off made all the difference: “I needed to have my own decompression time to spend time in my garden, with my horses, and with other family members.”
Her experience and time off heightened her awareness of what others might be facing outside of the office. As a business owner, this influenced her time-off policy. She says, “I try to be more flexible with working hours when necessary and provide ‘downtime’ in times of personal crisis, without penalizing workers for taking time off.”
2. Marco Scognamiglio, Global CEO, RAPP Worldwide
Marco Scognamiglio understands that mental health has long been a taboo subject, and he’s working to change that in his own company. “I strongly feel that you can’t positively impact an issue without first being brave enough to acknowledge its existence, no matter how sensitive the subject may be,” he says. Instead of tiptoeing around the subject, RAPP Worldwide focuses on ways to empower employees to prioritize mental health.
Scognamiglio explains, “Our talent is automatically enrolled, at no cost, into an employee assistance program that provides support, resources, and information pertaining to personal and work-life issues, including confidential counseling, legal support, and more — with free initial conversations or sessions with a professional.” Because hesitant employees might not take the initiative on their own, the company makes participation in the program the norm. After all, taking care of your mental health shouldn’t be something you only do when you’re in a deep depression. Counseling can help you balance work and family or combat stress during a busy week.
3. Sharon Soliday, CEO of The Hello Foundation
The Hello Foundation recognizes four core values and prioritizes these in its policies: putting kids first, giving generously, practicing work-life balance, and providing quality services. CEO Sharon Soliday says her company offers “flexible schedules, remote work, unlimited leave (including both the length and frequency of time off), and health insurance that includes mental health services and alternative care reimbursement.”
More importantly, Soliday acknowledges the importance of modeling these initiatives from the top down, saying, “If I need a break and don’t say so, how will staff feel safe to prioritize their needs?” Even the most well-intentioned mental health policies can fall short if employees don’t feel comfortable taking advantage of them. Lead by example and look for opportunities to encourage your staff to use these policies and be open with you about what’s going on outside of work. It’s as simple as being transparent with your team about times you take off to prioritize your mental health.
4. Joe Burton, Founder and CEO of Whil
Joe Burton says he emphasizes recovery time with his team: “We treat our professionals like athletes. If we expect people to train and push to success, they have to take breaks and recover.” With devices constantly at hand, many people bring their work everywhere they go. They might leave the office an hour early on a Friday, but they’re checking work emails while out to dinner with their family, and the phone is buzzing off the bedside table at all hours of the night. This environment provides no opportunity for recovery.
Before founding Whil, which provides digital training for mental and emotional well-being, Burton worked as a COO of a large company, which meant 14-hour days and constant travel. He herniated two discs in his back, which led him to suffer from insomnia. After losing two siblings to drugs and suicide, he reached a crisis point and finally vowed to prioritize stress management. Now, Burton says that his company practices what it preaches: Employees are expected to take a 5- to 10-minute mental break for every 50 minutes worked, and the team holds a mindfulness practice at 3 p.m. each day. Burton explains, “Mental health is like anything else — you have to practice at it to develop the skills necessary to deal with the pace of modern living.”
5. Shay Berman, CEO and Founder of Digital Resource
At Digital Resource, Shay Berman understands that mental health is very much an individual matter. To better enable employees to look after one another’s well-being, Berman encourages them to get to know each other beyond the surface level: “At Digital Resource, we like to take extensive personality tests and read motivational books in a group setting to really discover our strengths as individuals and as a team. The knowledge taken from these practices really creates our positive culture, and we are able to use the new awareness to keep an eye out for how each individual typically reacts to unavoidable stress.”
Instead of taking on the impossible task of removing all sources of stress, Berman focuses on making sure employees are able to cope with it by leaning on each other and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Prioritizing mental health is an ongoing process, not something you can take care of once, then check off of your to-do list.
6. Samia Reichel, VP Escrow Development, Fidelity National Financial
Samia Reichel recognizes that prioritizing mental health is essential for her team to succeed: “If we are not mentally prepared for our clients, they suffer.” Fidelity’s team members start with a strong foundation in physical health, including getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, and paying attention to what goes into their bodies. These are priorities team members discuss regularly to ensure they’re forming healthy daily habits.
Once physical health is prioritized, the focus turns to self-management. “Everything in our business is time blocked and assigned to an employee, Reichel says. “We meet regularly to discuss what tasks we have to complete and ensure we all meet our deadlines.” She adds that if an employee is struggling, her team works to redistribute the work to ensure he or she stays on track. Finally, the company encourages taking time off regularly so team members can recharge their batteries. Take it from a financial professional — encouraging time off is more of an investment than a cost.
It might not be easy to give employees this time, especially if your business is young, and your team is small. But when it comes to policies that can make mental health issues more bearable, treat others as you would want to be treated. At the end of the day, your employees — and consequently your bottom line — will thank you.