May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a time to raise awareness of those living with mental health issues, aim to eliminate the associated stigma, and encourage individuals to practice habits that support mental health and wellbeing. Research demonstrates that LGB people are twice as likely to live with a mental health condition compared to the general population. The likelihood is even higher for the transgender population, especially among compounded racial and socio-economic identities.

A few weeks ago, Zander Keig, MSW, LCSW, spoke to Out & Equal Executive Forum attendees on the effects of stress and burnout in the workplace and gave practical guidance on how to adopt practices for a more positive mental wellbeing. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we joined Zander again in conversation around the importance of addressing mental health issues in the workplace and ending the stigma associated with mental illness.

According to the CDC, poor mental health can affect work in numerous capacities – negatively impacting communication with colleagues, day-to-day functions, productivity, and more. Why is it important for employers to prioritize mental health in the workplace? What is at risk for employers who do not do this? What can employers do to better support the people that work for them?

It is important for employers to prioritize mental health not only because it is the right thing to do, but because the road to burnout is very expensive. It impacts a multitude of factors, such as employee churn rate, workers compensation claims, extended medical leave, and time away from the job, which puts additional stress and strain on the team and company.

Issues around poor employee mental health can be avoided if employers incorporate mental wellness benefits in the employee benefits package and establish cultures with a focus on positive mental health practices. Through this benefit, offered by companies like Modern Health, Lyra Health, and Spring Health, employees would have access to wellness coaches, therapists, psychoeducation webinars, and other forms of support during a challenging time.

Additionally, a recent study led by WHO found that for every $1 put into treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and employee productivity.

What are some of the mental health challenges that LGBTQ people face more acutely than others?

Although LGBTQ people are not predisposed to experience higher rates of mental illness – such as Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder compared to their cisgender and heterosexual colleagues, the data shows that LGBTQ people do report higher levels of mental illness.  There are certain factors that LGBTQ people may experience that can exacerbate an otherwise common physical and mental response to the stress and strain of daily life – this is referred to as “minority stress.” Minority stress for the LGBTQ community can be caused by a lack of family acceptance, social stigma, not enough culturally and linguistically competent primary care and mental health providers, struggles with unemployment and underemployment due to lack of employment protections, a lack of social service programs serving the community, and the ongoing legal battles across the country.

As the pandemic continues to impact the mental health of people all over the world, many are left to contend with stress or new mental health challenges in and out of the workplace. What is your advice for individuals dealing with new or different levels of stress and anxiety? Do you have strategies to suggest for stress management in the workplace/during the workday?

While there are proven strategies for managing stress, sometimes they elude us, especially during the times that we most need them. One way to manage stress is to incorporate certain strategies and techniques into our daily lives so that they become part of our self-care routine. Some of the most common techniques championed are getting regular exercise, eating a healthful diet, spending time in nature, engaging in fun activities, listening to music, making art, and spending time with people who love and support you. In addition to those helpful techniques, I regularly recommend that people take up a mindfulness practice and improve the quality and quantity of their sleep. There are many ways to be mindful – like just paying attention to the current moment instead of focusing on something in the future.  For example, seated or walking mindful meditation is a popular activity, but there is also mindful dishwashing, laughter yoga, and box breathing. All of these techniques offer the opportunity to focus on the present moment, release “happy hormones,” and increase the capacity to cultivate emotional wellbeing.

What does professional burnout look like now that we are over a year into the pandemic? We know that many people are struggling with isolation and challenges like increased caretaking responsibilities or financial insecurity. What are some key signs of stress and burnout in the workplace? How can managers notice these signs in employees and best support cultures of belonging?

Signs of burnout include physical and emotional fatigue, headaches, cynicism, irritability, poor digestion, physical pain, inability to concentrate and focus, and apathy. When employees are experiencing burnout, they are less likely to be productive team players, they may struggle with chronic meeting and deadline tardiness, they may begin to criticize colleagues, and this could eventually lead to them seeking alternative opportunities at a company that offers what they feel is missing at their current workplace. The ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout may be impacted by more employees working from home. As a result of so much of the workday being virtual, supervisors and managers may need to make a concerted effort to reach out to employees to schedule a regular 1:1 video chat to check in, offer any support, and remind employees of their wellness benefits.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. How can people effectively work to eliminate the stigma around mental health?

The work to eliminate the stigma around mental illness begins with the self. According to the Mayo Clinic some of the harmful effects of the stigma around mental health are a reluctance to seek help or treatment, the belief that you’ll never succeed at certain challenges, or that you can’t improve your situation. Working to eliminate the stigma around mental illness in society can take many forms, such as writing letters and emails to local politicians or local newspapers, attending or organizing a public event focused on providing resources for those grappling with mental illness and their loved ones, engaging with an online organization or community advocating for mental health consumer protections, and educating others around awareness of mental health issues.

Zander Keig is a proud Coast Guard Veteran and an award-winning Social Worker, Educator, Published Author, and Public Speaker with subject-matter knowledge and experience in developing wellness, mindfulness, leadership, belonging, and social care programs, interpersonal and organizational conflict management training, clinical peer consultation, and corporate mental wellness program development. He has served in various capacities: clinician, trainer, speaker, consultant, coach, advisor, facilitator, mentor, networker, educator, leader, and community builder. Keig, NASW 2020 National Social Worker of the Year, has been an LGBT advocate since 1987, first as a lesbian and now as a trans man.