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Workforce Development: A Mindful Approach

Destigmatizing mental health issues in the workplace can help employees be more productive

By Kathie Stamps

Are employees in your workplace treated differently if they have hip surgery? Migraines? Melanoma? What about an employee who has a bipolar or substance use disorder?

Whether gastroesophageal reflux disease or generalized anxiety disorder, pain is pain and help is available for mitigating symptoms or treating underlying causes. No one should be ridiculed or ostracized for asking about relief.

Kentucky human resource professionals are working to be even more responsive to psychological well-being issues now as the COVID-19 pandemic adds layers of stress, anxiety and uncertainty to the lives of state employers and their workforces.

Companies of all sizes are finding there is a payoff when they normalize the act of reaching out for help. Being in pain doesn’t make for a very productive worker, after all. Destigmatizing mental and behavioral health issues is a workforce development strategy in 2020.

When mental health issues in general—not just substance use—are destigmatized, people are more likely to pursue treatment that can help them be more productive in their jobs, and it can greatly benefit their coworkers, employers, families and themselves.

“If mental wellness wasn’t top of mind before the pandemic, it certainly is now,” said Beth Davisson, executive director of the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. The center operates under the Kentucky Chamber Foundation, the 501(c)(3) arm of the Kentucky Chamber, which is the state’s largest legislative advocacy group. “Mental illness is not talked about in organizations, even though so many are suffering.”

Within the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center’s portfolio of programs is the Workforce Recovery Program.

“We started it last year in response to the opioid epidemic, a huge issue in Kentucky,” Davisson said. The program has expanded to include all substance use disorders and mental health issues in the workplace.

“If you have a substance use disorder, you also have mental illness 70% of the time. They are co-occurring,” Davisson said. “You can’t treat one without the other.”

To help businesses develop recovery-friendly work environments and strengthen their current staffs, the Chamber Workforce Center in July launched Kentucky Comeback (kentuckycomeback.com), a program in partnership with the California-based Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Kentucky Comeback is also engaging statewide business leaders in the criminal justice reform process since the decade-long opioid epidemic and growing prison populations are linked. The corrections system is a costly one, in terms of dollars, work hours and lives. The Kentucky Comeback campaign’s website features tools for employers that include legislative information and links to recovery centers.

To educate against and promote treatment for substance use disorder in the workplace, the Chamber Workforce Center partners with state government’s Office of Drug Control Policy. KY-ODCP operates within the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

The illness is deadly. In 2019, 1,316 Kentucky residents died of drug overdoses, a 5% increase over the previous year, the KY-ODCP announced in August. A website, findhelpnowky.org, provides a pipeline to substance abuse treatment and recovery programs. Funded by the CDC, the site was created by KY-ODCP, the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

When the state chamber’s workforce center program started in 2017, Davisson was its only employee; now there’s a staff of 10.

“We build programs for employers to build healthier, more productive citizens,” she said.

Davisson and her staff train employers on how to have conversations with employees about substance use and how to stay within legal boundaries while doing so. A focus is letting personnel who have issues know how to quickly access the employee assistance programs businesses pay for.

Davisson herself makes sure employees know they can come to her.

“I’m open about this stuff,” she said. “If you don’t talk about it, though, it stays in the darkness and isn’t out there. I do think, in Kentucky, we have some great employers and leaders stepping out on this.”

Davisson encourages employers and business leaders to take the lead in their companies and share as much as they can, or even just a little, about their own mental health issues, while reminding their staffs about the availability of employee assistance, workplace programs, insurance coverage and other pieces of information.

“So much of it is really putting that narrative in the company’s culture and putting in the steps on how employees can act,” Davisson said. “If you’re suffering from substance use disorder, a broken arm, cancer or bipolar disorder, come to me. I can help them in the same way I can if they have high cholesterol.”

In her department, Davisson and the other nine employees get on a “caring conversations” call every Friday to check in with one another.

“In the workplace or working from home, checking in on your employees is really important,” she said, and moreso now. Remote work, online meetings with a professional dress code, random workspaces that are often cramped and/or shared, handling child care and home schooling all add up to complexity.

“A lot of things are under the microscope right now that cause a lot of anxieties, uncertainties and stress,” said Patrick Smith, chair of the Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management State Council. “COVID-19 has just changed everything in everybody’s lives. It’s mindboggling. You have to take small pieces and deal with the little steps you can, to make it better.”

Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management (ky.shrm.org) is an affiliate of the national SHRM organization. There are around 3,000 members across 13 local chapters in Kentucky.

“Employee assistance programs (EAP) are popular. They have been around for a long time,” Smith said. An EAP provides assistance to employees facing physical issues, mental stress or a financial crisis. Smith advocates putting an EAP in place and in the forefront as one of the important ways employers can help destigmatize asking for help.

“The other piece is communication,” he said. “We need to communicate. I’m hearing of more organizations doing standup meetings with their staff.”

At Smith’s own place of employment in Louisville, where he is the human resources manager for the Stoll Keenon Ogden law firm, biweekly calls take place for assuring and reassuring staff members that they are heard, and “allowing them the opportunity to express things impacting their lives.”

One thing he wants to make sure HR professionals and business leaders communicate within the workplace is that the employee assistance program is safe to use.

“One of the stigmas has been people’s fear of using it, because they think companies are wanting to know what’s going on in their employees’ lives,” Smith said. “Put it back out there and reassure them that it’s confidential. Encourage the use of it.”

An EAP is a perfectly fine resource to take advantage of, one that anyone could use at any given time.

“I share with (employees) I’ve used it myself,” Smith said. “It personalizes it.”

He also knows how important it is for employees and customers to feel safe on site. At the law firm, for example, he put up more than 80 signs in the building to make the office one-directional and to remind people to wear a mask, “to ease anxieties and tension of people when they have to come into the office,” he said. “Other organizations are trying to do the same, to reassure their employees that it’s a safe place, so that anxiety and that fear is at a lower level or not present at all.”

Employers can proactively destigmatize mental health issues with language: “It doesn’t matter if you have a therapist appointment or an appointment with your general practitioner, we’ll pay for you to go, or you can take PTO to do that.” That is suggested phrasing from Courtney Keim, a professor of psychology at Bellarmine University who heads the Psychologically Healthy Workplace initiatives through the Kentucky Psychological Foundation.

KPF is the public educational arm of the Kentucky Psychological Association. The foundation educates organizations across the state about psychologically healthy workplaces.

“Focusing on positive aspects of our psychological well-being includes an acceptance of the parts of us that may not be perfectly functioning,” Keim said. “The research in health and wellness in organizations has, over the past couple of decades, started to focus on all aspects of psychological health.”

The pandemic has exacerbated stress on every level, particularly the sense of not being in control and not knowing what’s going to happen next.

“We need to feel secure,” Keim said, citing examples like having a job, money, a safe place to sleep, food to eat and positive relationships. “The pandemic has taken away or lessened a lot of those things. We feel like there’s a great threat out there we can’t do anything about.”

So, when stress mounts in the office or in the home office and security feels impossible to grasp again, Keim suggests an internal dialog. “It’s hard for me to admit I’m not in control of this pandemic, but what am I in control of? Can I give myself a sense of having choices?”

A lot of research shows that helping other people can actually increase the helper’s happiness and satisfaction. “To give your time and talent to helping others can be a good way of putting a sense of control back into your own life,” she said.

The Kentucky Psychological Foundation (kentuckypsychological foundation.org) offers information on five major topics: diversity, public education, psychology leadership development, disaster preparedness and response, and psychologically healthy workplaces.

The organization’s Psychology in the Workplace Network of Kentucky promotes psychological health for workers through five core areas that create and sustain a psychologically healthy workplace.

• Work-life balance and flexibility.

• Opportunities for employee growth and development.

• Formal and informal methods of employee recognition.

• Employee involvement in decision-making.

• A focus on physical and mental health and employee safety.

Communication connects them all. Keim says organizations with programs and policies in these five core areas are more likely to have healthy outcomes, along with “mental health resources, wellness programs, Walking Wednesdays, healthy food options in the café and OSHA compliance.”

Work-life flexibility isn’t the same across the board. Essential workers in a hospital, for example, can’t work from home. “But can they have a little more flex and control in their schedules?” Keim asked. “Does everybody have to work a 12-hour shift, or can you let people have a little more control?”

In the core area of recognition, Keim suggests the question: “Am I remembering to recognize my employees for the good work being done? Maybe we can’t have a company picnic this year, but what can I do to systematically and formally recognize employees?”

Psychological health and wellness in the workplace work well with this five-concept model. “We can give organizations lots of examples,” Keim said. “They can pick the one that works best for them.”

How COVID-19 Is Affecting the Workforce

Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management and the Kentucky Chamber conducted a workforce impact survey in late July on the topic of COVID-19, with 351 responses from business owners and human resources managers in various industries.

51% have flexible hours for employees.

37% have zero people working remotely.

18% have around 25% of their workforce working remotely.

10% have around 75% of their employees working from home.

92% of these employers have employees with children under the age of 18.

31% said at least 25% of their employees will be teaching their kids from home.

When asked how significant the impact of COVID-19 and school-at-home has been on their organization, 41% have seen some impact and 35% have seen significant impact.

45% reported “other” impacts, including needing far more flexible hours, seeing unhappy and stressed employees, modification of work requirements, significant drop-off in business and reduction in staff productivity, struggles to get work done because they cannot replace employees missing work due to FMLA, and other similar concerns.

Kathie Stamps is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]