The U.S. Department of Labor has launched a new resource to help employers better understand mental health issues, and obtain guidance on how to cultivate a work environment that supports employees with related conditions.

"By some estimates, one in five American adults experiences a mental health condition each year and work plays an important role in their wellness," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Jennifer Sheehy. "Employers that understand the importance of providing a supportive environment that empowers these employees are doing what's right for their employees and for their businesses."

Create a mental health-friendly workplace

Experts and individual experiences point to some common best practices, all of which share a common thread of support.

These leading practices are categorized into four pillars, also known as the “4 A’s.”

Pillar 1: Build AWARENESS and a supportive culture

Train your management

Whether delivered through live workshops, webinars or other formats, trainings should educate managers on recognizing signs of stress in employees and how to respond and support workers in their recovery. It takes strong communication skills and emotional intelligence to create a positive psychological environment that promotes mental wellbeing.

Take action

  • Offer mentoring, coaching and peer support to your employees.
  • Conduct mental health awareness training and inform employees of available resources.
  • Provide flexible work arrangements such as flex-scheduling and telecommuting, as well as work-life balance programs.
  • Offer employees stress management training to develop relaxation, mindfulness and resiliency skills to manage workplace stressors and enhance mental wellbeing.
  • Involve employees in decision-making and problem-solving processes.
  • Develop and implement anti-bullying policies.
  • Sponsor awareness-building and anti-stigma campaigns.

Pillar 2: Provide ACCOMMODATIONS to employees

In other words, adjustments or modifications that enable people with disabilities, including mental health conditions, to perform the essential functions of a job efficiently and productively.

A variety of tools and resources exist to help employers support and accommodate their employees with mental health conditions:

JAN’s Accommodating Employees with Mental Health Impairments

In its toolkit, Accommodating Employees with Mental Health Impairments, Job Accommodation Network (JAN) explains that people with mental health impairments may develop some of the limitations referenced in the tool, but seldom develop all of them. What’s important is to consider is the limitations the employee is experiencing and whether/how those limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance.

Pillar 3: Offer employee ASSISTANCE

Pillar 3 in the framework is to assist employees who have, or who may develop, mental health

Many employers support employees by sponsoring Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) focused on mental health services. EAPs provide individual assistance to employees and family members experiencing personal difficulties. These difficulties may include, but are not limited to:

  • Stress, whether work-related or not
  • Alcohol and other drug abuse, including prescription drug abuse
  • Major life transitions
  • Health care management concerns
  • Financial or legal concerns
  • Family or personal relationship concerns, including those related to marriage, children or aging parents
  • Coworker relationship concerns
  • Work/life balance

The benefits of EAPs convey regardless of size of company, yet small businesses are less likely to offer them than their larger counterparts, even though research by the National Small Business Association indicates that 42 percent of small business owners report that, when it comes to overall productivity and employee health, high stress levels are the greatest concern.

However large or small your organization, the following are resources that can help you leverage EAPs as a workplace mental health strategy.

  • Employee Assistance Programs for a New Generation of Employees: Defining the New Generation: This report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) explores EAPs in the context of the millennial workforce.
  • Providing Support: This resource from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) addresses EAPs in the context of worker substance abuse in particular.

Pillar 4: Ensure ACCESS to treatment

The fourth pillar of the “4 A’s” is ensuring access to behavioral/mental health treatment.

Mental Health Treatment

If your company offers a health care plan, step one is to assess the specific mental health benefits that it covers, including treatment for substance abuse disorders. Does your health care plan:

  • Regularly provide information about mental health issues and employee benefits to reduce the stigma sometimes associated with seeking help for mental health problems?
  • Provide access to valid mental health screening tools?
  • Give employees easy access to mental health support and care – e.g., an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
  • Cover effective prescription medications for mental health conditions at a level that encourages their appropriate regular use?
  • Encourage mental health and stress management through a comprehensive wellness and health promotions program?

Other tools and strategies

Businesses that do not offer health care plans or plan to do so in the near future can still take steps to increase employees’ access to treatment, for example, by providing scheduling flexibility they may need to seek it. Employers can also offer their workers access to tools to help them assess their wellbeing and screen for mental health risks. Sources include the following:

  • Screening Tool Gateway: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-Health Resources Services Administration (SAMHSA-HRSA) Center for Integrated Health Solutions (CIHS) links users to a range of tools that screen for depression, drug and alcohol use, bipolar disorder, suicide risk, anxiety disorders and trauma.
  • Mental Health Screenings: Mental Health America’s (MHA) screening program provides a collection of online, free, anonymous, confidential and validated screening tools that can help individuals understand and learn about their mental health. Topics addressed include depression, eating disorders and addiction among others.