Darcy Gruttadaro joined the American Psychiatric Association Foundation in 2017 as the director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health. Before joining the Center, Gruttadaro served in multiple senior level positions with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Ahead, she will touch on how to improve mental health support for employees at work.
Director, Center for Workplace Mental Health
What barriers do employees face today in accessing mental healthcare in the workplace?
Shame and stigma remain barriers to people accessing care, as well as fear of judgment or loss of competence on the part of colleagues. There is also concern about opportunities for advancement. The APA’s poll in May of 2022 also showed that fewer people know how to access mental health services at work — it was at 71% in 2021 but 60% in 2022. The poll also showed that employers are offering fewer mental health services.
Why is it crucial for employers to invest in workplace mental health in 2022?
Mental health impacts all aspects of our lives and our work. Younger employees in particular are looking for visibility on mental health services and support within the workplace—it really impacts the bottom line. Depression, for example, one of the more common conditions in the workplace, is costly to employers, not just in terms of productivity but with regard to healthcare costs. Depression can also stem from an employee managing a condition like cancer or diabetes. It’s important to consider the impact conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use have on people’s overall health and wellbeing. We have escalating rates of anxiety and depression in this country. The CDC has been collecting weekly health data beginning in March 2020, and what we see is that the rates of people experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, have tripled and quadrupled—especially for 18- to 29-year-olds. So it’s really important to make sure you’re addressing mental health as an organization and offering support services.
What does effective mental health support look like in the workplace?
We developed a framework called LEAD, which stands for leadership, effective communication, adapting to change, and doubling down on access. Leadership drives the culture of organizations, so the more leaders address mental health, the better. Even showing a little bit of vulnerability can go a long way toward helping people feel psychologically safe. Effective communication is about making sure you infuse mental health into the culture of the organization, which means including a discussion on it whenever you address healthcare issues, but also offering dedicated trainings to mental health and wellbeing. When we think about adapting to change, we think about the importance of training leaders so that they can notice early warning signs of mental health issues. Adapting to change also means looking at company policies. Do we have mental health days? Do we have internal policies that allow people some flexibility if they need to seek care so they have time off? It’s about creating a sense of community so people sense that wellbeing is at the forefront. Doubling down on access is recognizing that we need to get serious about making sure people have access. Navigating mental healthcare in this country is exceptionally hard. How can we supplement that? How do we make sure we’re connecting people to community organizations that really know how to navigate care and can support people through that process?
What can employers do to make their benefit solutions more accessible, equitable, and effective?
Create a culture where people are encouraged to get care when it’s needed. Because psychological safety matters a lot. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), ask your EAP vendor how many people are connecting with therapists how many are connecting with care, because many employers don’t necessarily get the use that their employees really need. Remind employees what is offered via the EAP and track data to see that those numbers of engagement are increasing. Survey employees anonymously to determine if they have challenges in accessing care and mental healthcare. Strategize on how to ensure there’s a broad network of providers, so people can easily connect with care. Hold the plan accountable to build a broader network of therapists, psychiatrists, other mental health professionals, and social workers, to ensure that your plans are providing what you’re paying. Also, ask your health plan about the diversity of their network providers. You want to ensure that you are offering services and supports from providers that are representative of the racial and cultural dynamics within your organization.
How can employers navigate remote work sites to foster a corporate culture focused on mental wellness?
Pre-pandemic isolation and loneliness was a major health concern, and then with COVID-19, people started working remotely. So we have to find ways to build community. One way is to help supervisors, managers, and leaders understand how to check in in new ways, either one-on-one or with each team. An example is having workers share one word that describes how they’re feeling, and the team leader can start by showing some vulnerability, because that invites others to feel safe to do so. There are options for social activities online, but many people today may not want to spend extra time online. If people in the same community are working remotely, they can meet up outside if they feel safe to do that. Plan bonding events to create connections. It’s also about modeling balance. It’s really important for leaders to talk about the things they’re doing, to engage with their social network, and to stay connected in new ways with their team. It’s about encouraging mentorship and other peer support programs and employee resource groups where people can find new ways to connect with each other.