Photo By: Mike Graff

It’s OK to Be Not OK

How employers can support mental health at work

Back By Jennifer Fergesen

At some point in their lives, about half of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And those issues don’t go away just because they have to clock in at work.

A stressful or hostile work environment can not only exacerbate an individual’s state, but it contributes to loss of productivity. Adjusting leadership styles and company culture is the key to improving adverse conditions and curbing employees missing 3-5 days a month because of workplace stress, according to a Mental Health America 2017 survey, which also cited the food and beverage industries as scoring the lowest on workplace health.

Sacramento-area restaurants have experienced this firsthand, with a spate of suicides in 2018 due to mental illness and substance abuse that occurs in higher rates in the service industry. Patrick Mulvaney, chef and co-owner of Mulvaney’s B&L, counted four deaths, including friend Noah Zonca, a former fixture of The Kitchen. “I was off for weeks,” says Mulvaney. “Still it hurts that he left.”

The tragedies prompted Mulvaney to create the I Got Your Back project, with the support of the Innovation Learning Network, UC Davis Medical Center, Sutter Health and WellSpace Health, among others. Part mental-wellness program, part grassroots movement, IGYB helps employers in the hospitality industry connect workers with the resources they need to support their own mental health and that of their peers. Twenty restaurants in the Sacramento area, including Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, Scott’s Seafood on the River, Selland Family Restaurants and Paragary Restaurant Group, now offer peer counseling training to their employees through the pilot program.

Though geared toward hospitality workers, Mulvaney hopes the program will inspire adaptations tailored to fit any industry.

IGYB is part of a promising trend; California employers are beginning to reshape company cultures around psychological wellness and individual needs, helped along by funding provided by the California Mental Health Services Act and encouraged by a 2018 law that authorizes the state to establish voluntary standards for mental health in the workplace.

Mulvaney agrees that leaders have a special role in setting standards for employee care and well-being, including taking care of themselves. “I think the first, most concrete step you can do as a leader is to acknowledge that we all have struggles,” he says. “Exposing my vulnerability has only served to increase my strength.”

Here are steps employers can take to lay the groundwork for a holistic, collaborative employee support system.

1. Provide Fulfilling Roles

According to Dr. Peter Yellowlees, chief wellness officer at UC Davis Health, mental wellness in the workplace begins with fulfilling work. He’s an expert on the mental health of physicians, who have a suicide rate more than twice that of the general population, and he recommends that health systems and hospitals have all employees “working at the top of their licenses and not doing the sort of silly busywork that could be done by someone else.” Not all workplaces define levels of expertise as specifically as hospitals, but employers can still try to match their employees’ tasks to their skills and training. Allow employees the space to express whether or not they feel fulfilled in their daily roles.

2. Encourage Peer Counseling

“There’s always those people, the moms or the Uncle Ernies, that everyone talks to on the floor,” says Mulvaney. “We can use that to get information out to people.” IGYB includes educating “moms and Uncle Ernies” with evidence-based training through Mental Health First Aid, a national program that teaches participants to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance abuse. Camaraderie and peer support can improve the atmosphere of any workplace. Mulvaney’s employees connect while folding napkins or hanging out behind the restaurant, but in an office, “You can stop by the cubicle and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing today? What have you got going on?’” he says.

3. Connect Employees With Resources

“There’s a big stigma around mental health, and the hardest part is often to get people to accept the fact that they need some help,” Yellowlees says. Employees also have the right not to disclose mental illness to employers, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. UC Davis Health removed some of the resistance to getting help by creating an online process through which physicians self-assess through questionnaires, interact with a psychologist and get a referral, all while maintaining anonymity. Employers that lack direct access to psychologists can set up online portals that connect employees with resources, such as those listed on the IGYB website.

4. Normalize the Conversation 

Mulvaney’s B&L has a lower-tech method of anonymous self-assessment. When clocking in for a shift, employees choose a card marked with one of four faces — happy, sad, angry or stressed — in a box. Before a shift, after waiters and cooks are briefed on specials, the lineup leader looks at the cards to discuss the emotional temperature of the staff. “The magic of that is that you are now saying to the restaurant, ‘It’s OK not to be OK,’” says Mulvaney. “We talk about it all the time.” These daily conversations give employees the space to open up about their psychological state, while maintaining their privacy.

5. Consider Flexible Work Schedules 

Good employers recognize that employees with chronic or acute illness might have to take sick days or work from home when they’re not at their best. The same measures can help those struggling with mental illness. Whenever possible, employers should give “employees as much control as is reasonable” over their schedules, says Yellowlees, who encourages techniques like video conferencing to facilitate at-home work. Even businesses that require employees’ physical presence, such as restaurants, can offer time off for mental wellness within reason. “You get to say, ‘I really care about you,’” he says.

6. Take a Holistic, Preventative Approach 

Donna Hardaker, manager of workplace mental health and peer engagement at Sutter Health, cautions against a whack-a-mole approach to mental wellness, in which “an issue emerges and we hit it,” she says. Instead, she encourages employers to consider hazards against mental health, such as toxic stress, on the same level as physical hazards against health and safety. Employers don’t only set up ways for employees to heal from encounters with physical hazards, like sharp edges and fumes; they put measures in place to prevent harm. “It’s a deep culture change,” Hardaker says.

7. Demonstrate Leader Commitment 

Hardaker’s approach to what she terms “psychological health and safety” involves training employees at all levels of an organization to understand how what happens at work can affect a person’s well-being, without pigeonholing people into specific diagnoses. Managers and employers should “move into a state of consciousness around how we truly care about our ‘greatest asset’ — our people” in all decisions, she says.