As we recognize World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10, we’re reflecting on an unfortunate pair of workplace statistics: 75% of U.S. adults have struggled with an issue that’s affected their mental health, but a striking 8 out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking mental health care. That’s the polar opposite of what it means for a company to ensure emotional workplace safety and a safe space for employees to be able to flourish, even when times get emotionally hard or they have a mental health condition.

Research from Kaiser Permanente has concluded that “even in the most progressive workplaces, many employees keep their conditions secret. They may be afraid that being open about them will hurt their reputation, compromise work relationships, or even jeopardize their job. This can prevent employees from seeking help and getting better.”

Failing to offer employees emotional workplace safety or a safe space in which to navigate all of their health issues can also have significant financial impacts for an organization. Consider these data points about mental health disorders:

  • They are the single greatest cause of worker disability worldwide, according to the American Heart Association.
  • They are responsible for over 6 in 10 missed work days, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • They will cost countries globally $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030.

More specifically: 

  • Bipolar disorder costs companies an average of 66 workdays a year, at a cost of $9,619 per employee with bipolar disorder.
  • Major depressive disorder (MDD) costs companies an average of 27 workdays a year, at a cost of $4,426 per employee with MDD.
  • Suicide, usually the result of depression, is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming over 47,500 lives in 2019 (the last year that full numbers were available from the CDC).
  • Suicide is the second-leading cause of global deaths among 15- to 29-year-olds.

It’s true that the pandemic has helped remove the stigma around mental health, and employers are more aware of the importance of having a more resilient workforce, proactively helping to mitigate unhealthy stress at work, and providing programs and tools for employees to maintain a great quality of life. But as we return to the workplace, it’s critical for HR and benefits leaders to nurture this evolution, to create cultures of caring and empathy — to make their workplaces places of emotional safety and a safe space for employees to talk about their own mental health concerns and also to educate employees about symptoms of mental health and suicide ideation.

Formally, what we’re referring to is “psychological safety” — when employees believe that anyone can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation. It’s well established as a critical driver of high-quality decision-making, healthy group dynamics, and interpersonal relationships. It’s also linked to greater innovation and more effective organizational execution.

Since the pandemic changed the landscape of work, a lot of attention has been given to the more visible aspects of psychological safety and working from home. Two of the concerns are reduced trust among employees toward their employers and new power dynamics between employees at home and those in the office.

Obviously, simply saying “just trust me” won’t work. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that when a company prioritizes creating a stigma-free culture, they visibly “show and reinforce that the company values employees’ overall health, including emotional wellbeing and physical health.” 

That effort should include, but certainly isn’t limited to:

  • A holistic health and wellness initiative that emphasizes mental wellbeing
  • Increasing education about mental health for managers (particularly how to talk with employees about mental health)
  • Employee engagement activities specifically centered on mental health
  • Regular and ongoing communication about mental health resources available to employees and their families
  • Company-arranged social activities — even if they’re conducted virtually — that let colleagues form supportive relationships based on common interests
  • Avenues and time off for employees to get involved with community activities and events
  • Respectful, supportive communication to break the silence around mental health conditions

As Don Mordecai, Kaiser Permanente’s National Leader for Mental Health and Wellness, has written: “To help more people get the care they need, it’s essential to understand stigma and take action to overcome it. Employers have an opportunity to address stigma head-on — to make sure employees feel supported and to help set the tone for a productive and mentally healthy workforce.