With Everyone Stressing, Now Is a Good Time to Talk About Mental Health

It’s the most wonderful, and often stressful, time of the year. The holidays are upon us and many employees are balancing preparations for festivities with last-minute assignments to meet year-end goals. Since almost 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and 64% of people with mental illness report the holidays exacerbate their condition, a significant portion of the workforce will be coping with additional obstacles during this busy time. By taking a few proactive steps, employers can address employee stress during the holidays and get their organization and employees on-track to emphasize mental wellbeing in the new year.

Occasional workplace stress is inevitable, but employees that work in a supportive environment recognize that they are valued and can turn to their colleagues for help without repercussions or judgment. Fostering this type of culture is a year-round activity, but communication is especially important this time of the year. Celebrate successes and address year-end stress by looking forward. Employers can build excitement with employees by applauding 2019 accomplishments and sharing 2020 goals, rather than focusing on year-end deadlines or rectifying past stumbling blocks.

During this time, companies should also be sure to address workplace stigma by emphasizing conversations around mental and emotional health so that employees who may be struggling know they have a place to turn. Social activities, such as holiday parties, ice skating or gift exchanges, can also help employees feel included in activities outside of everyday responsibilities, and cultivate a sense of belonging on a personal level.

Talk about it

Many organizations have a hectic, year-end push to meet business objectives. During this time, employees may feel additional pressure to meet quarterly or yearly goals, making it an excellent time to reach out to employees to discuss stress.

However, conversations about mental health can be intimidating for both employees and employers. Managers that are upfront about their own struggles, or openly talk about the importance of emotional health, will help their teams be more comfortable discussing their own mental wellbeing and how the company can help.

Another easy way to begin these conversations is to talk about stress in the context of lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is often an indicator of stress and exacerbates mental health conditions. Employees may feel uncomfortable discussing their anxiety with an HR professional or manager but initiating conversations by asking whether employees are getting enough sleep can provide insight into their workload, home life and mental health. Once employees are comfortable discussing their sleep patterns and any underlying stressors that may be affecting sleep, managers can assess the employee’s mental health and point them to helpful resources, such as those available through their company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which are designed to address their specific needs.

Know when to step in

Although fellow employees may recognize that something is going on with a co-worker, such as acting withdrawn or having difficulty controlling their anger, many do not know how to step in to help. According to CVS Health data, almost 40% of Americans say they’ve experienced concerns about their mental health or the mental health of someone in their household. Among those, about one-fifth are not confident in their ability to find the help they need1.

To ensure that employees ”Know the Five Signs” of emotional suffering and can assist when needed, invest in workplace mental health training programs. Initiatives such as the Mental Health First Aid program train employees to recognize and respond to a mental health problem or crisis and can be applied to most workplace settings.

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For continued assistance with at-risk employees, consider turning to resources designed to maintain a safe and healthy work environment. For instance, Aetna’s Organizational Risk Management Center (ORMC) works directly with HR and managers to help employees in need by connecting them with appropriate resources such as counselors, telephonic support and trauma and coping resources.

Promote access to resources

The health care system is complicated, and employers need to serve as a guide to mental health resources offered through company plans. The holiday season is a great time to promote mental health resources available through medical benefits or EAPs.

For example, resources like MindCheck® and myStrength can help identify triggers, avoid stress and empower people to address their personal mental health needs — during the stressful holiday season and all year long. Similarly, for employees who require more hands-on support, resources like AbleTo offer customizable counseling programs with a live therapist for one-on-one support.

Despite being a busy and stressful time of year, employers can help their employees manage mental health conditions they may be facing so that they can focus on a holiday season spent with family and friends. By addressing stigma, promoting conversations around mental health, and pointing employees to available resources when in need, employers will not only serve as a resource and motivator during the year’s final weeks, but will help their workforce and organization be ready to make mental wellbeing a year-long activity in 2020.

Cara McNulty, DPA is president of Aetna Behavioral Health, a leading provider of mental health and employee assistance program (EAP) solutions to members around the globe. She oversees a national team that spearheads the development of programs, products and capabilities designed to offer individuals easy access to quality, innovative treatments and meet people along their health care journey, while driving engagement and improving health outcomes through an easy and meaningful experience.

Cara is a highly regarded executive leader and population health scientist whose success in driving population well-being outcomes spans the employer, government, payer/provider, start-up and education sectors. She is known for her ability to integrate confirmed health science into practical business models that drive measurable outcomes.

Cara previously served as the North American leader of Integrated Wellbeing for Willis Towers Watson. Her responsibilities included advising clients on strategies focusing on employee engagement, clinical outcomes and productivity. She sat on the company’s Health and Benefits Specialty Practice Leadership team and focused on integrated wellbeing, intellectual capital and service development across physical, emotional, financial and social dimensions.

As the former head of Population Health, Team Member Wellbeing and Guest Wellness for Target Corporation, she led efforts to implement the company’s health agenda. She developed strategies that improved all team members’ health, driving value and business growth while decreasing health care expenditures. Through the advancement of Guest Wellness, she successfully led strategy and advanced products and services to meet the demands and desires of the consumer and local communities.

Cara is nationally recognized for her strategic design and implementation of Minnesota’s transformational population health care legislation, which to date is one of the largest financial allocations in the country for initiatives known to be reducing health disparities and chronic diseases.

She holds a doctorate in public administration from Hamline University, a Master of Science in applied health science from Indiana University and a Bachelor of Science in community health education from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.