Managing Mental Health Crises at Work

By Andie Burjek

Oct. 10, 2019

Talking about suicide does not need to be taboo.employers mental health; Millennials and mental health

Mental Health America’s 2019 “The State of Mental Health” report has some concerning statistics. While adult prevalence of mental illness has been relatively constant, suicidal ideation, or suicidal thoughts, has increased from 3.77 percent in 2012 to 4.19 percent in 2017.

“That’s over 10.3 million adults in the U.S. with serious thoughts of suicide,” the report noted. Meanwhile, more than 10 million adults in the U.S. have an unmet need for mental health treatment.

Companies should understand how suicide could impact not only a person’s family and loved ones, but also their co-workers, clients and everyone around them, said Ali Payne, practice leader for organizational wellbeing at insurance brokerage Holmes Murphy.

“I think the way we make sure people feel connected is having a strategic relationship with leaders and having leaders be open about how it impacts them or how they do business,” Payne said. She suggested creating a work environment where open conversations are encouraged.

Leaders should educate themselves of the available resources and prepare themselves if a mental health crisis happens, she said.

Suicide is a significant public health issue both in the United States and worldwide. Between 1999 and 2016, suicide rates have increased in every state in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, the World Health Organization estimates that one person dies of suicide every 40 seconds worldwide.

“Our Global Suicide Crisis,” a 2019 report from Prudential, notes that while it’s understood that depression and anxiety can be precursors to suicide, there isn’t yet enough known about the many reasons behind suicide to prevent it. Still, addressing depression and anxiety can help.

One way to address mental health in the workplace is by adopting best practices such as telehealth for behavioral health and on-site mental health clinicians, the report notes. It also stressed that when an employee takes time off to deal with a mental health episode, managers should remain in contact with them. “This may not only help an employee through depression — it can also reduce their fear of returning to work,” the report noted.

Workplace benefits and policies like this are valuable, Payne said, but employers and managers can also learn about accessible community-based resources that address mental health. These resources include mental health services provided by and crisis hotlines, government organizations, state-based organizations and local hospitals and health providers.

“A lot of employers don’t always know what those resources are, and they sometimes take them for granted until they’re impacted by [a mental health crisis],” Payne said. “Then they might take the initiative to figure out what those resources are. But I always say, let’s be as proactive as we can and really try to get a handle on what [these resources] are even outside of what we’re buying today.”

Co-workers can also benefit from guidance in learning how to address what they think may be a mental health crisis in a colleague. It may not be a comfortable situation, Payne said, but part of the training she does for clients is based around understanding how to help struggling colleagues.

Productivity Expectations

One work reality that may impact an employee’s mental health is rising productivity expectations, Payne said. “Right now we’re all asking our people to do more with less,” she added, saying that employees are more often wearing many hats and pitching in wherever the company needs them. “We need to make sure we’re thinking about how workload impacts people.”

Even though employers understandably want employees to be their most productive selves, that’s difficult for an employee when they are having mental health problems. It’s an added stress as well if they still feel workplace pressure to be at maximum productivity even when they’re not feeling good, Payne said.

“If they’re feeling like this, they’re definitely not going to bring their whole self to work. They’ll leave a majority of what they need and what they want somewhere else,” she said.

She also suggests that team leaders learn to help people recognize when they’re not feeling 100 percent and when they need to take a break.

Personalizing Programs

“We can’t just say that mental health affects everyone the same way,” Payne said. Financial stress may negatively impact one person’s mental health while career stress may cause a similar reaction in someone else. There isn’t one simple solution to address this workplace issue.

“There’s no silver bullet to anything, and that’s what everyone wants,” she said. “Everyone wants this silver bullet that’s going to solve all the problems in mental health, like stress management.”

While stress management programs have some value, stress impacts everyone differently. People can improve their resiliency, but even so they may not be as resilient of a person as someone else, Payne said. Some people are just more resilient than others. Simply investing in programs meant to increase employees’ resiliency is not enough to address stress and mental health, she said.

Payne encourages her clients to consider all the resources they have at their disposal that can be impactful to different people with different needs who are struggling.

“It doesn’t mean that they’re struggling all the way to suicide,” Payne said. “It might just mean they’re struggling in general. How do we make it OK to not be OK?”

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Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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