Mental-Health Help: Why Unused?

New data shows half of HR professionals won’t discuss their own mental health at work. This may bode poorly for the millions of other workers who have been diagnosed with depression. 

After a pandemic in which so many employees suffered mental-health struggles such as anxiety and depression, 4 in 10 at any given time, by some data, one would hope the stigma might have faded. After all, top CEOs openly discussed mental health during the pandemic, and a few modeled care access by putting their own weekly counselor appointments on their public calendars. 

Yet new figures from the Society for Human Resource Management show that nearly half of HR professionals don’t feel comfortable discussing their own mental health at work, and 26% don’t feel comfortable asking for mental-health resources. “I was incredibly disappointed and surprised by this,” says Ron Seifert, leader of the Workforce Reward and Benefits practice for North America at Korn Ferry. “Frankly, I find these statistics very troubling.” 

In theory, HR professionals are the gatekeepers to these programs, and should be the most enlightened about, and encouraging of, access to mental-health benefits. And yet SHRM’s findings are mirrored by Korn Ferry’s own data, which shows that employees are uncomfortable accessing resources or discussing them with managers, but do value companies that take mental health seriously. The stigma appears to be strongest among office workers who are paid to use their minds. “They’re naturally worried about being perceived as diminished,” says HR expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. 

To be sure, most employees are also tight-lipped at work about medical issues such as hypertension or diabetes—but they don’t hesitate to seek treatment. Even if having an open dialogue about personal mental health is impossible, experts say that helping employees access existing benefits is essential. The risks are enormous: According to Gallup figures, 17.8% of US adults were depressed last year, up from 13.8% in 2020. Workers who do not receive treatment are of course suffering unnecessarily, and their work invariably takes a hit. “It can potentially cause them to make mistakes or not complete tasks—and ultimately that’s a risk to the business,” says Porter. 

Experts say that ideally, HR staffs would model an optimal attitude about mental-health benefits for employees. Yet in practice, they’re often concerned about privacy, and their hesitance may indicate confidentiality problems within an organization. As a result, employees and HR people alike may bend over backward to avoid being “branded” as mentally ill. “I’ve repeatedly heard people say that they pay out of pocket for mental healthcare for themselves or their children, rather than make a claim,” says Seifert. 

Experts say organizations can overcome individuals’ reticence by regularly announcing available benefits for employees and family members. A simple announcement accomplishes two tasks: “It builds awareness of company offerings, and also can be a step toward stigma reduction,” says Mark Royal, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. 

Building awareness means that every manager knows company policies and offerings and openly checks in with employees. Current data shows that many employees won’t talk to their own managers about mental-health needs. Companies can work around this by offering easy access, such as free counseling sessions that can be booked confidentially, says Royal. That way, making an appointment is as much a nonevent as reserving a conference room is. “Think confidential, easy to access, and on demand,” says Royal. 


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