In the second part of our interview with Dr. Gerald Koocher, we’ll have a more broad discussion about workplace mental health issues.
Dr. Koocher is currently dean of the College of Science and Health at DePaul University in Chicago. He is also a senior associate in psychology at Boston Children’s Hospital and a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2006.
You’re a manager who’s also a psychologist. How have you dealt with employee mental health issues in the past?
I once had a faculty member with a personality disorder that caused him to grate on people’s nerves. So I took him out to breakfast and lunch a couple of times to try to talk with him about how he could be more effective. And I’m not saying to him, “This is a mental health intervention.” Rather, it’s the leader of the faculty talking to the faculty about an issue.
I’ve had employees who had alcohol problems. We recognize this is an illness, and we encourage them to get treatment. We can’t order them to do that, but we can tell them if they come to the office intoxicated again, then we’re going to have to take the next steps. So you try to recognize that. As a manager, you need to keep in mind the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and give people appropriate accommodation.
How can we take away the stigma of mental health issues in the workplace?
What you have to remind people is that mental health is a continuum. It’s a little bit like your weight. There are varying degrees of too heavy and too thin. Everyone feels down some days, everybody gets nervous some days — that’s depression and anxiety. But the push into more severe issues is a matter of intensity and duration. If it interferes with your ability to interact with people or get out of bed in the morning, then you need to consider professional help.
What can managers do if they’re concerned about an employee’s mental health?
There’s something that psychologists do called a mental status exam. And we all know how to do a mental status exam; we’re just doing it automatically. If someone usually combs his hair but then one day it’s all askew, or if he seems unusually distracted, you can express concern to the person.
The best way to do that is to say you’re confused; that’s a nonjudgmental term. You could say, “Are you doing okay? I’m sort of confused because you don’t look like your usual self. Is there anything I can do?” But if the person isn’t willing to share or get help, there’s not much you can do in the workplace if there’s no performance issue.
If an employee’s performance has declined, you can have an individual conversation with them about that, but you should approach it as “How can I help you?” versus giving them strict instructions to improve. Fortunately, there are lots of jobs where having a minor problem could actually be okay. For example, a person with a little bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder would make a very good accountant, as long as they can get the financials out at the end of the week.
How can wellness programs or insurance carriers help with mental health?
I’ve seen employers who have workshops related to mental health issues such as coping with family stress. Some work sites sponsor AA meetings (with a degree of privacy), and some have weight-loss programs. Mental health does tend to carry a degree of stigma where people don’t want it identified in the workplace, but certain programs can have a positive effect.
How else can employers positively affect employee mental health overall?
There was a very famous study done years ago. An industrial psychologist did it at a big factory where they started playing music or changed lighting. Every time they made an incremental change in the environment, performance increased a bit. There are things you can do; for example, just asking people “What is of most concern to you?” can help. I’ve sent out a feedback form to my employees to give them an opportunity to review me. It’s a chance for people to weigh in and know that someone wants their feedback. These are small actions you can take to tweak the climate of the workplace.
Because of the ACA, mental health services are now required for most insurance plans. What can employers do to encourage employees to utilize their health benefits when needed, and can this help employers from a cost perspective?
If you look at mental health utilization, it’s not all that expensive. In fact, good mental health coverage improves physical health. Here’s why: The biggest problem in health care today is medical nonadherence — people do not follow medical advice. It’s been estimated that 50 percent of patients don’t take their medications as prescribed.
Think of how people would be healthier if only they managed their illnesses better; that’s a behavioral problem. Behavioral health does a lot of things to improve health care. We’ve done a lot of things to change medicine to make it easier for people to adhere to. Behavioral health interventions — smoking-cessation programs, weight-reduction programs — run by mental health professionals can help people follow medical advice. For the most part, good mental health care can keep physical health care costs down.
Business Insider estimates that 70 percent of employees are looking for new jobs right now. This kind of stress can affect the workplace. Are there mental health steps employers can take to address attrition?
A lot depends on the nature of the workplace. If you work in a 100-person company, the opportunities for growth may not be significant. A lot of factors that cause people to look for jobs do not reflect negatively on the workplace. They’re not fleeing the workplace; they’re just looking for a better opportunity, so it’s not necessarily bad that people are looking. If a lot of your employees are looking, then you need to evaluate your turnover to see if you need to address mental health/morale issues.
Are there any resources you would direct employers to where they can learn more about workplace mental health?
Here’s a program that’s really interesting: APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards. You can see some good examples there of what companies are doing for mental health. Directing employees to their EAP representatives (offered through their insurance carrier) can help, as well.
Andrew Reinbold has been engaged with the health care marketing and communication space for over five years. He currently focuses on business-to-business content for Anthem, Inc. that is relevant to employers and brokers as they navigate the changing health care environment.