Investing in Staff Mental Health, Part 2: Action Steps for Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

7 min read

In Part 1 of our mental health series, we talked about the mental health crisis facing professional services organizations. Now, in Part 2, we’ll discuss some concrete strategies your firm can use to promote mental health at work.

The legal and accounting industries are facing a mental health crisis. Long hours and high-stress environments were the norm in these sectors long before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a nationwide spike in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse rates. With the public mental health support system underfunded and overwhelmed, and with wait times to access care exceeding clinical guidelines, it falls upon the private sector to take responsibility for mental health in the form of corporate health and wellness initiatives.

In Part 1 of our series on mental health in the workplace, we examined why the legal industry in particular is facing a mental health epidemic, how mental health problems can impair your team’s performance at work, and what kind of an ROI you can expect by implementing mental health initiatives in the workplace. Now, in Part 2, we’re going to share some practical steps you can take to improve morale, reduce stress, and take care of your team so they can take care of your firm. Here are some of the tactics your firm can use to keep your team performing at their peak.

Destigmatize Mental Health in Your Office

One of the most insidious and challenging aspects of mental illness is that people who struggle with mental health issues suffer twice: They suffer at the hands of their mental illness, and they suffer the social stigma and fear of discrimination that comes from having a mental illness.

Even your top-performing team members could be suffering from mental health issues, and you might not know it; the negative social stigma associated with having mental health problems means most people hide their mental health issues from bosses, colleagues, clients, and even their friends and family. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says that stigma stops 40% of people with depression or anxiety from getting medical treatment. And the longer your staff put off seeking treatment for mental health issues, the greater the opportunity for those issues to compromise their performance.

“Stigma”, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is the set of negative attitudes, discriminatory practices, prejudices, and stereotypes that people with mental illnesses face because of their mental health issues. The Mayo Clinic says that stigma can make people with mental illnesses less likely to seek treatment when they need it and less likely to continue treatment once receiving it. Furthermore, a 2019 survey by the APA found that 50% of employees fear discussing mental health in the workplace, and over 30% of employees fear that they may be fired if they attempt to talk about mental health at work.

By destigmatizing mental health in your workplace, you can ensure that your team feels comfortable advocating for their mental health needs – and that means they’ll be more likely to utilize resources, seek treatment, engage in proactive mental health promotion behaviours, and take care of themselves. When your team feels safe discussing mental health and utilizing mental health resources, they’ll be better able to take care of themselves, which can reduce the impact of mental health struggles in the workplace.

Destigmatization is a top-down effort; it requires leadership by those who are responsible for setting the company culture. Destigmatization doesn’t happen on its own or by accident. If you’re a partner, department head, manager, founder, or even just a de facto leader, you can help destigmatize mental health in your firm by talking about the importance of mental health at work, by talking openly about your own struggles, and by standing up to discrimination and prejudice when you see it. Having a staff Mental Health Training Day and sharing resources from organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association can also open up the conversation about mental health in your firm.

Steer Clear of Unlimited PTO

One of the best remedies for workplace stress, and one that has stood the test of time, is a paid vacation – the opportunity to fully disconnect from work and have some fun in the sun for a few weeks. 

Taking time off work enables your team to come back refreshed and re-energized. And common sense would dictate that if a little bit of paid time off is good, then more must be better. Right?

As it turns out, it’s not that simple.

Championed by the tech industry and driven by the notion that results are the only thing that matters, unlimited paid-time-off policies have started to gain traction across North America in recent years. While an unlimited PTO policy sounds like an effective mental health initiative in theory, in practice, it creates more problems than it solves.

In a 2017 article for Harvard Business Review, bestselling author Neil Pasricha and aviation strategy company SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam say that unlimited vacation policies create a culture where no employee wants to be the person taking the most vacation days. The social pressure of wanting to be seen as a dedicated worker causes employees to take fewer vacation days, not more. Employees won’t take time off if they see that other employees are still working, for fear of being labelled lazy.

Enact a Mandatory Vacation Policy

While unlimited PTO may have a paradoxical effect on workplace stress, there is a type of vacation policy your firm can implement to help address burnout.

Pasricha and Nigam say that mandatory PTO is a far more effective remedy for burnout than unlimited PTO. The pair collaborated on a mandatory PTO experiment at SimpliFlying; in this experiment, staff were required to take a mandatory one-week paid vacation once every seven weeks. Staff who worked while on vacation – or who contacted the office in any way – forfeited their vacation pay for that week.

After 12 weeks, managers at SimpliFlying rated their employees on creativity, productivity, and happiness using a five-point scale. After implementing mandatory PTO, creativity, happiness, and productivity all increased.

Mandatory vacation policies work because they sidestep the workplace culture issues associated with taking time off; if all of your staff are required to take all of their vacation time as a condition of their employment, then none of your staff are in a position to judge others for taking time off.

Add Mental Health Support to Your Benefits Program

If your firm’s extended health benefits program already includes coverage for mental health, making your team aware that mental health coverage is available to them can help your staff access care when they need it.

If your firm’s extended benefits program doesn’t currently cover mental health support services, adding coverage for mental health benefits can be a quick and easy way to support your team’s mental wellness. In April 2022, the Ontario Association of Social Workers issued a call to action inviting all Canadian companies to institute a minimum of $1,500 per year in mental health benefits. In 2019, national law firm Borden Ladner Gervais expanded its mental health benefits coverage from $1,000 per year to $5,000 per year. BLG has also retained a team of on-site counsellors to provide in-person services once every two weeks at each of the firm’s five offices across Canada.

You can also compile a brochure or list of mental health supports available through various professional societies and distribute that list to your team. The Law Society of Ontario’s Member Assistance Program, for example, offers members confidential counselling and a variety of online mental health resources. Given the stigma around mental health, some of your staff may feel more comfortable seeking mental health care from an external organization with no connection to your firm — and law society programs are a convenient way of meeting that need.

Professional services industries like law and  accounting are especially prone to burnout. But by making some adjustments to your workplace culture and implementing a few simple changes to HR policies, you can make your firm a mentally healthy workplace that encourages peak performance. Mental health initiatives are also a good investment; they can return up to $4 per $1 spent in the form of higher productivity and fewer short-term disability claims. Mental health can be a difficult topic to raise, but the COVID-19 pandemic has done something nothing else could: It has normalized conversations about mental health. If your firm hasn’t started talking about mental health yet, the current mental health crisis could be the perfect opportunity to start.

Mental illness is hard. If you or someone you know is having an immediate mental health crisis or considering self-harm, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Want to make a difference? Your firm can help support mental health initiatives in Canada by donating to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

What’s your firm doing to promote mental health at work? Let us know in the comments.

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