Karen Herson is the founder and CEO of Concepts, Inc.a small communications company owned by people with disabilities and women.
There is no denying that the pandemic has put significant pressure on US workers and, by extension, US businesses. No matter the size or industry, no business was left untouched, including mine.
I’ve always been proud to promote an agile, supportive culture in the workplace, but seemingly overnight I had to rethink what that actually meant. General employment policies based on typical situations became less useful in the face of several unprecedented challenges. In addition, for the first time since I became an employer, every employee faced one or more challenges at the same time – be it equipment needs, lack of childcare, health issues, or all of the above. It was a stressful time for my team and for me.
When I think back to those early days and how we are doing today, I believe the experience has strengthened our corporate culture by giving me a new perspective on and strategies for supporting employee mental health. It has helped me understand that as president and CEO I need to set the right tone. While I like to think that I have always supported the mental health of my employees, I used to be passive, while these days I am more purposeful in my approach.
I share this because when it comes to mental health and wellness initiatives in the workplace, people often think of benefits such as gym memberships, wellness retreats, employee resource groups, employee assistance programs, and other things not normally offered. by small businesses. But even in the absence of such services, small businesses can still make a big difference when it comes to employee mental health and well-being.
For starters, the close-knit atmosphere often found in smaller organizations can lead to greater openness and understanding, but as mentioned, it has to come from the top. This means making sure employees know they can ask you what they need to succeed at work and at home, rather than making assumptions based on your own experiences.
The key is to listen and recognize each employee’s individual circumstances as unique. In many ways, this is a lot easier in a small business because the lines of authority are often short and clear.
The result of such openness is often effective adjustments, which some employers could be obliged to provide people with mental illness under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA does not “specifically list all impairments covered,” according to its website, but it does define what the term “disability” means in relation to a person. A primary criterion is “a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more important life activities.”
Since I have less than 15 employees, the ADA is technically not applicable for my business, but because we are a federal contractor, another law, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, is doing. Even if not required by law, sheltering workers with mental health problems can be beneficial in the long run, as the ultimate goal of housing is productivity.
It’s important to note that every employee and their circumstances are different, so adaptations – be it mental illness or another condition – are individual in nature. But one common adjustment you can implement for people with mental illness is flexibility in scheduling attendance at counseling or medical appointments. This was once the case for one of my employees who could only meet her therapist during the traditional workday. We simply agreed that if necessary, she would make up the time in the evening that same day. Obviously, in some industries, having an employee absent for a period of time can be more challenging, such as in a restaurant or other service environment. In that case, there may be an actual schedule change.
To gain access to care, of course, more than time is needed. For example, consider your insurance offer. Most small group health insurance plans include: needed to cover mental health and substance use disorders. In addition, “group health plans and health insurance issuers that provide mental health or substance use disorders” must comply with the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act. This means that they have to cover these services in the same way that they cover medical and surgical services. When choosing my company’s care plan, I made sure it was MHPAEA compliant. (I spoke to my plan manager and there are several) sourcesincluding a online self-compliance toolthat may help.)
Even if your small business doesn’t offer a health plan, you can still help employees access the help they may need by sharing information about mental health resources in the community. A good source for this is the Behavioral Health Treatment Locator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which allows people to search for service providers in their communities. Another idea is to make employees aware of online screening tools that can help them screen for mental health risks, many of which provide referrals in the event of an identified need.
A natural time to share information about such resources is Mental Health Awareness Month in May, but of course, action should be taken throughout the year. I can proudly say that this is now the case in my company. I’ve learned firsthand that small business leaders can intentionally integrate mental health and wellness considerations and conversations into all company-wide decisions. I’m personally committed to keeping it that way going forward — and I encourage other small business owners to think about ways they can do the same.