In the past, mental health issues have been a dark secret rarely discussed in families and almost never addressed by employers. The stigma is not just imposed externally, as only 1 out of 3 people who need help will seek help in the treatment and support of their mental health.

This prejudice is also manifested by acceptance by some employers that worry more about the implications of dealing with employees with mental illness than supporting their well-being, by some providers in not consistently diagnosing or treating patients for mental illness, and by some insurers in putting up barriers to coverage and accepting inadequate networks to support the mental health of the populations they serve. These acts of omission would not be tolerated for heart disease or cancer but are too easily tolerated in our current systems of support for mental illnesses or addiction disorders.

Recognizing the concerns and opportunities presented by this environment, leading advocates and advocacy organizations have come together to define a framework to improve workplace mental health. These organizations include the Northeast Business Group on Health, NAMI New York City, the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health (affiliated with the APA) and the Kennedy Forum. After a series Workplace Mental Health Summits and related CEO Summits, these organizations have defined a path based on the following four guiding principles:

KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON: Long hours, lost lunch, late nights—they all contribute to overwhelming stress, especially for those already experiencing mental health issues without any sort of buffer or coverage.

1. Know the impact

To mobilize an organization, engage leaders, sustain resources and measure outcomes, we need to start with the basic premise that this is an endeavor worth pursuing.

2. Break the silence

While there has been great progress in the treatment of mental illness, the stigma associated with mental illness persists. When we talk about mental health as a natural extension of overall health, we create the opportunity for people to speak up about the issues that matter in their lives and for others to offer support before it is apparent or even needed.

3. Ensure affordable, quality and integrated support

While many companies offer an Employee Assistance Program to support their employees with mental health and other issues, the utilization of these services is usually very low compared to the potential need. Employers need to review and potentially supplement access to quality mental health support.

4. Move toward a culture of well-being

We have long recognized that the environments we live and work in have an impact on our health and well-being and that if we focus on prevention, we can mitigate the onset and severity of disease while having a positive impact on the productivity of our workforces.

The business case for moving to a culture of well-being is overwhelming. Employees with a higher sense of well-being are more productive, generate higher sales, are more innovative and generally lead to more profitable companies. They also have lower health care cost, lower turnover, less sick leave and less burnout.

Companies can support people to build up their life skills like resiliency and mindfulness that help them to better adapt and perform in their environments at work and outside of work. Just like our muscles, our brains have the ability to adapt and improve with the right training.

However, we also should not be averse to tackling the demands and pressures at work that lead to “chronic stress.” There is a great opportunity to understand the interplay between our work environments, our communities and the well-being and engagement of our workforces. Together, focusing on a holistic culture of well-being (physical, emotional, social, purpose, financial) can serve as a force multiplier for the effectiveness of our people while helping to prevent and mitigate the impact of mental health on our populations.

While we’ve come a long way, there’s still much work to do in reaching our potential to support mental health and well-being. Employers as the largest purchasers of health care and other advocates can come together to create a new era where the historical prejudice and ignorance around mental health is behind us. Only when we take a more comprehensive, engaging and holistic approach will we move mental health and well-being from the darkness into the light.