Mental Health at Work

Mental Health in
the Workplace

When we hear the term “wellness,” most of us think of physical wellness—eating right, getting our steps in, making sure we have 7–8 hours of sleep a night, etc. However, the definition of “wellness” has evolved far beyond physical wellness to include emotional, financial, spiritual, and, of course, mental wellness.

Often these various elements to wellness are interrelated and significantly impact one another, such as physical wellness impacting mental wellness (and vice versa). Battling a physical illness can trigger depression. Struggling with anxiety may cause near-constant headaches and nausea. The same can be said for other types of wellness, but the clearest link can be seen between physical and mental health.

A muscular arm flexing and a brain that represent physical and mental health at work.

With one in five people experiencing a mental illness in a given year, this is an issue that impacts people, their loved ones, and the organizations they’re associated with. The question is, are organizations prepared to support the mental wellness of their people in the same way that they support their physical wellness?

The impact of mental health on people and organizations.

  • Many employers offer wellness programs such as preventative care, fitness programs, smoking cessation initiatives, and weight control programs. These initiatives are great at promoting physical health and wellness, but employers often struggle with how to specifically address mental health and wellness.

Some employees may be struggling with a mental illness, or perhaps supporting a spouse or loved one. Think about the pressure that they are experiencing. That pressure doesn’t just shut off when they show up work; rather, they bring it with them. When organizations understand that, we have a better chance of helping people be their best.

Understanding the impact of mental health on our employees also leads to positive impacts on business performance. Not addressing mental health in the workplace costs organizations billions of dollars annually in absenteeism (absence from work) and presenteeism (reduced productivity at work). There are also increased healthcare costs that range $79–105 billion each year for organizations.

And then there are the challenges that organizations face when addressing mental health and mental illness, such as privacy and stigma, to name a few. In some cases, the workplace becomes part of the problem by not fostering cultures of acceptance and trust, by not supporting those in need, or by ignoring the pain point because it is uncomfortable to discuss. Work itself can be a significant stressor in life. Given that many mental health challenges are rooted in stress, sometimes the work environment is the cause of or trigger for the mental health challenges that people experience.

Starting the conversation.

Knowing that this can be a difficult topic to discuss in most organizations, in 2015 TiER1’s leadership began exploring how to increase mental health awareness and reduce stigma through conversations in the workplace. With input and guidance from the Linder Center of Hope and NAMI Southwestern Ohio, we piloted a month-long journey at TiER1 called Start the Conversation.

Representation of a project TiER1 created about starting the conversation around mental health at work.

Dr. Keck, CEO at the Lindner Center of Hope, described this experience for businesses as “truly revolutionary.” Before starting the program, 94% of TiER1ers were impacted (either directly or indirectly) by mental illness. No one was quite sure how teammates would react to addressing this difficult and personal issue. The risks were high, but the rewards strengthened our culture of trust and support:

  • 46% talked to someone outside of TiER1 about the program and opened a conversation about mental illness.
  • More than 60% of participants increased their awareness of mental illness, talked to a coworker, and talked to someone for the first time about mental health.

The journey of bringing mental health awareness to our workplace and others made me realize that everyone is fighting something. Everyone is impacted by mental illness in some way. During our journey, I learned that there is a greater desire for openness than we realize. People want to share their stories and to support others. But to do that, they need to have trust.

Organizational leaders can create trust by fostering an environment where people can talk about the things that they’re going through and recognize that their struggles are accepted and understood. To do this, they must be empathetic and supportive to those living with a mental illness. It can be an uncomfortable space, but if leaders start by being vulnerable and open about their experiences, they normalize the idea and build trust among employees to open up further conversations. This not only makes them better leaders for individuals who are directly impacted by mental illness, but also helps them mitigate the impact that mental illness may have on the organization.

Here are some actions you can take to start the conversation in your organization.


Increasing mental health awareness will build greater empathy among your employees. To foster a supportive culture within your organization, check out free off-the-shelf programs such as the ICU Program from the Center for Workplace Mental Health. The ICU Program is an awareness campaign for the workplace designed to decrease the stigma of mental health and foster a workplace culture that supports emotional health. The program was originally developed as part of DuPont’s Employee Assistance Program in 2011 and has been delivered to DuPont’s 70,000 employees worldwide since then. The Center for Workplace Mental Health has adapted the program for use by other employers.


Many nonprofit organizations offer free educational resources to help organizations educate their employees about the signs and symptoms of mental health issues. The Center for Workplace Mental Health offers a unique, off-the-shelf educational program about depression called Right Direction. Right Direction is an initiative that gives employers the tools they need to address depression specifically in the workplace. The program provides turnkey customizable resources and materials to increase awareness, reduce stigma, and motivate employees and their families to seek help when needed. I also recommend checking out other organizations like Mental Health America and National Alliance for Mental Illness.


It’s important that people have access to support for addressing their mental health concerns. When you connect employees to the mental health benefits and support they need, you enable them to be healthier, more productive employees. Make sure your organization includes mental health benefits in the health care packages you offer. Mental Health America and other organizations provide resources and advice for finding help.

Opening up about mental health in the workplace.

Three years after starting the conversation about mental health at TiER1, I continue to see the positive impact it has had on our culture and our people. Teammates continue to share stories, resources, and words of encouragement through our internal social media platform, Yammer. The level of trust and empathy I see across our organization is incredible.

Leaders have the opportunity to show that they care for their teams and that they are owning the organizational impact on employee mental health and wellness. I encourage you to set the example for how to be vulnerable, open, empathetic, and supportive of mental health and wellness. Not only will your relationships with employees flourish, but the business will flourish as well.

Here are some additional resources to learn more about starting the conversation:

Want to connect with Cara? Give us a call at (859) 415-1000 or drop us a line in the form at the bottom of this page.

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