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How to Support Your Employees’ Mental Health During the Holidays


As the year comes to a close, remember that some members of your team will be struggling with mental wellness issues or recovery from addiction.

Earlier this month, a CEO told Kelsey Moreira he was pretty sure that none of his company’s 100 employees was in recovery from addiction. Unless the statistics are totally off, she replied, that is highly unlikely.

Substance use disorders are so much more prevalent than employers tend to think,” says Moreira, the co-CEO and founder of Las Vegas-based Doughp, a cookie dough company that donates to recovery organizations and advocates for a national designation for recovery-friendly workplaces. Nearly 20 million Americans 12 and over had some type of substance use disorder in 2017, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In June 2020, 13 percent of U.S. adults reported starting or increasing substance use to cope with coronavirus-related stress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Holidays usually present additional mental health challenges, for those in recovery from a substance use disorder and many others, experts say. This year, it’s especially tough: Aside from the anxiety around buying gifts and seeing family, racial and political tensions are running high, the pandemic is still going on, and there is great deal of economic uncertainty. “Leading up to this holiday season we have a trifecta,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, a program of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. “It’s a recipe for burnout and stress.”

Fortunately as an employer there are ways you can help. Here are ways to support your employees through the holiday season, from Moreira, Gruttadaro, and other CEOs and experts.

Encourage open sharing

At Doughp all-hands meetings, Moreira admits when she’s having a hard week and slipping on self-care. “It’s scary to do as a leader, because you’ve just been told you have to be strong all the time,” she says. But opening up makes it easier for employees to follow suit. Doughp has a “Mental Health Mondays” Slack channel where each employee shares a high and a low from the previous week. That enables Moreira to see when people share they have something rough going on in their lives, and schedule a meeting to check on how they’re doing. Of course employees may be reluctant to reveal that they’re struggling with addiction. To help, Moreira suggests trying to find one person on your team who might be willing to share, and then invite them to start a sober employee resource group.

The holidays also are an important time for a one-on-one “How are you really doing?”-type conversation with your workers, Gruttadaro advises. The meetings will be more effective, she adds, if your managers are trained on leading with empathy, compassion, and even how to spot the signs of folks struggling with a substance use disorder. While you’re at it, add in some “small wins” recognition for your team members. “This is the time of year people want to feel valued because they’re stressed,” Gruttadaro says.

Adjust your benefits

Providing consistent therapy for employees as a company benefit will make them happier and improve your company’s bottom line, says Ashley Loeb Blassingame, co-founder of Lionrock, an online substance use disorder counseling platform based in Redwood City, California. Early in the company’s history, she realized the sales staff performed worse when something bad was happening in their personal lives. The company now contracts several therapists that employees can see once a week, during work hours, free of charge.

When it comes to paid time off, refer to non-vacation time as “mental health days,” Moreira advises. That can start a conversation around mental wellness, which is better than an employee pretending to have a cough as an excuse to miss work. You might also try just giving the gift of extra time this holiday season. Humu, an HR tech platform based in Mountain View, California, started doing that at a different difficult moment–in June 2020, when employees were reporting increased mental health challenges. The company instituted a four-day workweek policy every other week and found employees were better able to detach from work without losing productivity, according to co-founder and head of people science Jesse Wisdom. “If you care for people in hard times, they’re going to care for your business in hard times,” she says.

Celebrate differently

Holiday cocktail parties can be fun but focusing company events on alcohol can be a genuine health risk for those who are trying to get sober, Blassingame says. Consider spotlighting alcohol-free “mocktails” or creating a celebration centered on another type of social experience, like playing a game. “It’s a diversity and inclusion issue,” says Blassingame: If one of your employees had an allergy, you’d provide them with something they can eat. The same concept goes for your employees who might be in recovery. You can also try celebrating with events focused on wellness, advises Maryam Jernigan-Noesi, a psychologist and CEO of Atlanta-based Jernigan & Associates Consulting. You could have a chef demonstrate how to cook healthy dishes, for example, she says.

Finally, it’s helpful to remember that people on your team might not have somewhere to go over the holidays or even a support system at all, Moreira says. So, you could FaceTime them on Thanksgiving or Christmas, for example. “Not every one of your employees has someone at home to ask how they’re doing,” she says. “You have a chance to be that person.”

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