A recent article on CPR News featured a headline: “Colorado’s health care system scored 17th for COVID-19 response, but ranked among the five worst states for mental health, alcohol deaths and suicides, according to survey.” I am proud to have been part of the Colorado healthcare systemic response as I was employed at two major health systems since the pandemic started. Because I was in a leadership role, I was part of incident management teams. There was an incredible effort from hospital administration to keep our patients and employees safe.
The second part of the headline is troubling and it almost implies that because we are so effective in our COVID response, that we are paying for it now in terms of poor mental health. This is possible and should be considered but Colorado has lagged behind the country in our mental health care for many years. In January of this year, the Director of the Office of Behavioral Health demonstrated some vulnerability and candor when he made the statement to the effect of “Colorado has failed its residents with respect to our state’s mental health services and policy”. Just to be clear, I spoke with Dr. Werthwein privately following his announcement to resign earlier this year as the director of OBH and I have confidence that he performed his duties effectively and served Colorado well.
So What now?
My hope is that CPR’s reporting does encourage employers to look at how they can support employee mental health. Organizational mental health is highly individualized and even department specific within your organization. When developing an organizational mental health strategy, we know what doesn’t work but we aren’t as certain as to what does work. Just as we needed to develop a rapid response to Covid at the beginning of the pandemic, we are in a new mental health pandemic.. We have been making tremendous progress as a nation reducing stigma around mental health but now it is time to act.
Starting an Organizational Mental Health Program
- Develop an organizational mental health strategy. Keep it simple. Stick to what we know and make room for new ideas. You should have a heavy emphasis on interpersonal positive interactions, employee appreciation and recognition. You can’t outsource your organizational mental health. Mental health digital applications are fine, better access to counseling and coaching are also helpful but not sufficient.
- Measure the effectiveness. We can’t manage what we can’t measure. Simply by engaging your workplace in conversation on “what is mental health?”, you will be forming connections. Measure something that matters and is supported by the team. Psychometrics can be tough to work with but how you frame the construct will drive the development of the interventions. The statement “I feel supported by my immediate supervisor” can be a proxy for many things including workplace stress. Simply sending that question out in a survey on a likert scale will provide data and opportunities to improve.
- Share the results. Approach this as you would any other process improvement project. Use the PDSA methodology and communicate across the entire organization about the process. The journey is most important, not the destination. It doesn’t really matter if you get it wrong. If you are working collaboratively, transparently with stakeholders across the organization then owning the mistake and pivoting to another solution is part of what makes a healthy workplace.
At the end of the day, health (physical and mental) is closely tied to an individual’s feelings of connectedness. Consider lifelong romantic partners in their 90’s, one dies the other partner dies soon thereafter. People who are part of communities have higher life satisfaction. Intimate relationships are one of the most highly valued aspects of a person’s life. Recovery from all kinds of things like cancer, addiction, weight management, they all have better outcomes and prognosis with group support. Anything you are doing as part of your organizational mental health strategy should be looked at through the lens of bringing people together.
Consider diversity, equity, inclusion and justice- Those constructs foster connections and are good for your organization’s mental health. Company picnics, light hearted team oriented space in meetings, helps people connect and sets a tone. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Let’s redirect that sense of urgency we felt at the beginning of the pandemic to the mental health of our organizations. After all, your Human Capital is your most valuable asset.