Editor's Note

Mental Health Issues Take a Bite Out of Productivity and Life

Companies are now focusing on mental health in the workplace

By Rob Smith March 19, 2020


This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Type hostile workplace into a search engine, and one of the top hits is an article this magazine published way back in 2011 about, well, workplace hostility. Every month, its still one of the publications most-read stories. According to the American Institute of Stress, 83% of workers in the United States suffer from work-related stress. Stressed-out employees cost U.S. companies $300 billion annually. Stress causes around 1 million employees to miss work every day. Work-related stress results in $190 billion in health care costs annually. It doesnt have to be that way.

Seattle-area companies, including F5 Networks Inc., Expedia Group and Providence St. Joseph, are all focusing on mental health to improve employee productivity, reduce turnover and help workers bring their whole selves to work every day.

Expedia, for example which recently finished moving all 5,000 or so of its employees from Bellevue to its new corporate headquarters in Seattles Interbay neighborhood has recently launched what it calls a coaching/learning culture that has already increased employee engagement and productivity, improved leadership development and driven innovation.

Leaders coach their teams by asking open-ended questions, listening and letting the employee find the answer on their own versus telling, says Deborah Drechsel, Expedias director of global learning delivery. Most importantly, it allows the employee to learn on the job.

F5 recently adopted a new set of expectations about workplace behavior and a common language for talking about it. Key values include teamwork and maintaining a positive narrative on the mental and physical health of employees while still meeting business priorities. Company programs also include tuition assistance for professional development, mentoring and flexible schedules.

As a result, Fortune magazine has named F5 one of the Worlds Most Admired Companies two years in a row. The technology company also is a finalist for the 2020 Corporate Goodness Awards by Benevity for its social-responsibility program.

Like company culture, a focus on mental health starts at the top and includes working with health providers to ensure participation and positive outcomes. Its not enough to simply roll out an employee assistance program or offer excellent benefits if employees dont take advantage of them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, workplace health programs are most successful when they combine mental health and physical well-being. It recommends more than a dozen steps employers can take, including making mental health self-assessment tools available, providing free subsidized lifestyle coaching and counseling, creating dedicated quiet spaces and allowing employees to participate in decisions about issues that affect job stress.

Its especially important to adopt a culture of listening, Drechsel says, because it builds trust.

Mental health is no longer a stigma, especially for younger workers accustomed to sharing details of their lives on social media. As the Centers for Disease Control notes, most organizations already have communication structures in place. Its just a matter of priorities and commitment.

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