The COVID-19 pandemic amplified stress for Americans, including in the workplace. Longer hours, changing work situations and sometimes hostile interactions with the public were routine for many in public health. But even as the outbreak ebbs, stressors remain. It was within this backdrop that a group of nonprofit leaders formed Striving for Mental Health Excellence in the Workplace, an initiative that calls on employers to make a commitment to support the mental health of their employees. Since launching in April 2022, more than 190 organizations — including APHA — have signed a pledge to follow practices and policies that support the mental health of their staff. Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of APHA, spoke with The Nation’s Health about the important role employers can play.

Why is this initiative needed now?
The last two years have been very stressful for everybody, and people have had to make really profound adjustments in their lives.

A lot of us had to adjust to working from home, which was stressful, because it did change the dynamics at home. Normally, when you go to a job, you differentiate your workplace from your home life, and there's a transition between those two worlds that we live in. The pandemic blended those two and, of course, disrupted many of the relationships that we had.Man with hand held up to temple looking depressed

Two and a half years later, we're reversing that process — we're converting it back. We're looking to find ways to help people acclimate to the new world that we're in, because it is different. We're looking at how best to provide a range of support for people in the workforce and trying to get a better understanding of what those best practices are.

How does prioritizing mental health care benefit employers?
There's no question that happy, content employees are more productive. They stay longer. They're more satisfied with not only the work that they're doing, but the work in the workplace itself, and this benefits the organization.

What challenges do employers face in supporting the mental health of their staff?
You have to do this in a way where the employer is not intruding on the individual employee's personal space. The goal is to guide them, to empower them, to move barriers out of the way, to allow them to utilize those services.

You need to make sure they know those services are available, such as through the insurance plan that you offer them, and make sure that the workplace itself is supportive. You have to do that in a way that's equitable to everybody. If you’re treating everybody in an equitable manner, that doesn't mean you treat them the same. But it does mean that you're giving people what they need when they need it, and when you identify someone who is struggling and needs additional support, you have a mechanism and a system to identify them, and then offer those supports to them.

What equity issues come up around mental health in the workplace?
One of the things we learned during the pandemic was that, obviously, all workers are not equal. People don't make equal pay. They don't have equal home environments. And so, to the extent, people have different resources, there's enormous worker inequities.

It may or may not be based on race, but it is certainly based on status and income and the resources that one has. Some of those inequities have persisted, because there's still a lot of barriers, still barriers to kids going to school, still barriers in terms of hours and those kinds of things. To some degree, people acclimated to the new environment, and now we're asking them to abandon that. There are many people that just don't adjust that easily.

How are you applying what you’ve learned as a leader of APHA to the initiative?
First, I'm hoping that employers get health insurance coverage for their employees, and that they get mental health parity for their employees. There are many companies that don't provide really robust insurance coverage and don't ensure that the coverage that they offer is parity to mental health as well as physical health. That's something we want to continue. APHA has always worked for that, and we will continue to advocate for that.

Secondly, making sure that coverage is affordable. And third, making sure that we everyone has in place employee assistance programs. One of the downsides of stress in the workplace, and these kinds of complicated societal changes, is that you see an increase in depression, anxiety, substance misuse, increased use of alcohol, increased use of vaping and tobacco. Employers should offer employee assistance services and make sure that employees know that they are available to help them.

If you had an employee that's just been stellar, and all of a sudden, they're struggling, you need to figure out why they're struggling. Employers should provide paid sick leave. They should also ease people back into the workplace in a way that certainly helps get the mission done, but provides them with some support.

Learn more about the initiative and sign the pledge to commit your organization to supporting employee mental health.

Photo by Fizkes, courtesy iStockphoto.