Regional leaders share what it means to support workers’ emotional health
Mental health, though still stigmatized, is no longer an issue that can be pushed under the rug, regional experts say.
State legislators have made the issue a priority this year by setting up a new crisis hotline and earmarking more than $100 million for mental health in the state budget. A report by the Indiana Behavioral Health Commission estimated that untreated mental health costs the state $4.2 billion a year.
The reality is that organizations of all kinds and sizes are impacted by mental health challenges because employees don’t usually leave their problems at home.
Workers in the Hoosier state are no exception. Almost two-thirds of Indiana employers knew they had employees struggling with mental health last year, according to a Wellness Council of Indiana survey released in July 2023. But just a quarter trained management to spot the signs of mental illness and take action.
A call to action
This inaction isn’t acceptable nor sustainable if you ask regional mental health professionals like Dr. Dewnzar Howard-Jones, a psychiatrist and medical director at Edgewater Health in Gary. According to Howard-Jones, positive results in the workplace start with conversations at the executive level.
“I think probably the No. 1 (way to improve outcomes) is talking about mental health,” she said. “I think that’s the first step. We can’t really address mental health if we don’t talk about things like depression and anxiety.”
In other words, the stigma is still real and can negatively impact people personally and professionally. Howard-Jones says it’s better than in years past, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
That’s especially the case in marginalized communities, where a mental health challenge is often seen as a weakness or deficit. This means that people aren’t willing to seek help because they feel shame. However, by changing the narrative around mental illness, we can help people live fuller, richer lives.
“Instead, we should be approaching it like we do with diabetes and hypertension — that with medications and treatment, people can get better,” she said. “They work regular jobs. They’re doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. Anybody can get mental illness. And it looks different for different people. So, I think the more we talk about it, the more we’ll see that we don’t have to whisper about it.”
Some organizations like Purdue University Northwest and Franciscan Health are taking note, leading with bold wellness initiatives.
PNW has a robust employee assistance program (EAP) that allows faculty and staff to bring their best selves to work.
Sue Miller, associate vice chancellor for human resources, has immersed herself in this work. She oversees all the HR functions pertaining to the Hammond and Westville campuses. One trend she’s observed in recent years is the popularity of their third-party EAP. She said enrollment has tripled in the past five years, and the pandemic likely was a major driver.
Being sensitive to the challenges this global crisis brought to the fore, Miller said, the university upped the ante on its wellness benefits.
“It was a time when people were very stressed out,” she said. “They weren’t sure what was going on. So, we increased our employee assistance program benefits. We went from three visits to 10 visits per year.”
Miller said increasing the number of visits helped employees better manage stress, grief, isolation and uncertainty. The feedback was that increasing the number of sessions helped them dive deeper into these challenges and feel more centered.
Beyond the utility, Miller said that tracking specific metrics has allowed her team to keep their finger on the pulse of trends related to employee mental health and the demand for such programs. This allows them to adjust if necessary.
Miller’s colleague Colleen Robison, associate director of benefits, said partnerships with vendors like Anthem have been fruitful, too. The insurance company has an emotional wellness program available free to members. Employees can take short assessments that gauge emotional health and access self-paced courses that target challenges like stress, anxiety, worry and insomnia.
“You do it on your own time in the comfort of your own home or wherever and receive some education, support and tools,” Robison said.
Robison and Miller both agree that these benefits have made Purdue an employer of choice.
Julie Kissee, administrative director of Franciscan’s EAP, affirms that these programs can give organizations a competitive edge. However, the commitment must be more than surface level, or it can come across as hollow and won’t resonate with potential employees. It can mean digging deeper to ensure the organizational culture is healthy.
“Organizations must understand that in order to attract staff, they have to pay attention to the work environment,” she said. “We have to look at that and make sure that they’re not one of those organizations that isn’t listening to what they need.”
According to Kissee, the goal is to create a culture where change is integrated into the organization’s DNA for the better. It’s an existential challenge in today’s employee-driven market. For instance, she hears feedback that employees want resources on mindfulness, work-life balance, preparing for the future and self-care now more than ever.
“So I think the pushback from the organization is (due to the fact that) they never had to think about it from the employee perspective as much as today,” she said.
Leading by example
Centier Bank, however, is one local institution that has maintained a longstanding investment in employee well-being. Tami Janda, the bank’s wellness coordinator, said Centier’s approach to employee benefits reflects its values as a family-owned business. It’s about taking care of the 1,000 people who contribute to the bottom line. Janda said she feels empowered by the leadership to support the organization’s culture.
Beyond perks that promote physical wellness — like a free onsite health clinic and health coaching — they also contribute to employee mental wellbeing. For instance, Janda said they have lunch-and-learn programming to educate staff about various topics related to mental health.
“Right now, we’re making a big push to offer more support in the mental health world,” Janda said. “We realized that, especially since COVID, a lot of our associates reported feelings of anxiety, depression and burnout. And so we’re working on that.”
Specifically, Janda said they’re doing a lot around remote work’s impact on mental health and how mindfulness can be a tool in the mental health toolbox. They want employees to feel like they can slow down and take breaks occasionally. This is a case when modeling from leadership is particularly important. Janda said the examples must come from the top for employees to take it seriously and follow through.
Sometimes the best approach is the most obvious, Janda said.
“Some employers might already have some benefits,” she said. “(Employees might need) education on how you use your benefits to enrich your life. After your orientation, you tend to forget about all the benefits that are offered to you until you absolutely need them. That’s why re-educating the employees about the benefits they do have and how they can use them, and then incentivizing them to do so (can drive action).”
A helping hand
Andrea Sherwin knows what motivates employers and employees to adopt and sustain mental health programs. As president and CEO of Mental Health America of Northwest Indiana, she helps Northwest Indiana companies determine the best way to engage employees by way of a data-centric approach through one of their initiatives.
The plans are customized to the organization’s situation and goals.
“We might talk to an organization that does not have an EAP program and discuss why that’s important and how that might help,” she said. “So (then) we can construct a plan. And then licensed social workers go in and present information (to the workforce) based on feedback from the employer.”
Employers outside of the nonprofit’s service area can still seek help in this way. For instance, the Wellness Council of Indiana provides free, virtual consultation services and support to Indiana organizations that seek guidance in evolving their workplace mental health and overall wellbeing efforts. They also aggregate data related to physical and mental health and offer programming that attempts to bridge the gap.
Similarly, Sherwin’s team keeps current on trends that impact employee well-being and human resources. She said her peers engage in advocacy at the national level.
“There’s a lot of big topics (being discussed) now around mental health,” she said. “One of the things that we advocated for pretty heavily was the new suicide prevention hotline (988).”
Indiana opted to invest in a broader crisis response system to help all Hoosiers. The said the move toward a dedicated number will ultimately include more than just someone to contact at a 988 center, but also someone to respond and a safe place for help, if needed. The work, which started in July 2022, will continue over the next six to nine years. According to the Family and Social Services Administration, pilot projects will establish these services through providers throughout the state.
More than 7,000 calls were made to the 988 number in Indiana alone between April and May this year, according to AXIOS Indianapolis. Some experts are concerned the funding will not last.
But legislators say they are dedicated to the mental health of Hoosiers. Senate Enrolled Act 1’s goal is to help people access treatment more quickly. It directs state funding to be used to improve the state’s response to mental health emergencies and expand the network of clinics offering services. The new state law earmarks dollars toward the state’s network of certified community behavioral health centers, allowing them to hire more staff and expand programs provided.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about needing additional funding and legislation around expanding staffing so there’s a robust support network around that,” Sherwin said.
Practical tips for good mental health
Julie Kissee, administrative director of Franciscan’s EAP, has some practical tips for employees to show up as their best selves at work.
What are some proven tips employees can use on the job to foster wellness?
- Have your annual physical completed every year with your primary care physician.
- Take your lunch away from your work area.
- Incorporate movement into your day if you sit at a desk for the majority of the day.
- Learn desk yoga/stretching techniques and implement them regularly throughout the day.
- Increase your supportive professional relationships with mentors, positive co-workers.
- Utilize or improve organizational skills: Keep your work area organized and have a safe, welcoming area to perform your job duties.
- Make your desk your own: decorate, personalize, make comfortable. This helps to reduce stress.
- Participate in wellness activities when offered: walking challenges, de-cluttering challenges, lunch-time group walks, healthy eating demos.
- Set a positive tone every morning by completing an entry in a gratitude journal.
- Use or improve assertive communication skills to assist in healthy communication and respectful conflict resolution. Remember, diversity is a good thing in the workforce, and with diversity brings many different perspectives and approaches to accomplish business goals. There is room for everyone to present their ideas, and there is a need for integration of all ideas to grow.
How can employees advocate for themselves in a workplace setting?
- Request wellbeing programming in the work environment.
- Request wellbeing resources: EAP services, health coaching, work-out facilities.
- Use chain of command and discuss fair treatment issues if needed.
- Provide ideas, wants and concerns during surveys, town hall meetings and open forum discussions.
- Identify the issue with at least three recommended solutions. Focusing just on the problem will keep you feeling bad, but when you look at possible solutions, it changes the direction to possible action and creativity.
- Request healthy nutritional choices in the cafeteria and during employee appreciation events.
Tips provided by Franciscan Health
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