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Are Wellness Initiatives and 'Self-Care' Actually Harming Your Employees?

The ability for wellness initiatives to actually improve employee mental health is small. As a therapist, let me explain...

We'll cover:

- How many of your employees already have a mental health diagnosis?

- The difference between employee wellness and mental health

- How wellness can push away those most in need, leading to 'quiet quitting' and turnover

- Steps to take to make your wellness initiatives more inclusive

First, statistically about 20% of your workforce already meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis. Now without raising your own stress levels, let's acknowledge that anything impacting twenty percent of your workforce requires your attention, period.

And this is not even to mention the constant presence of additional risk factors like stress and burnout, which can ultimately escalate into to more serious mental health problems. We've seen this more than ever in recent years.

Yet wellness based approaches towards mental health remain the norm - they are often simple, cheap, and because they’re solution-focused, they sound good.

What does a "wellness based approach" mean? Let's look at some of the distinctions:

Typical mental wellness solutions:

- getting good sleep

- engaging in physical activity regularly

- meditations and mindfulness experiences

Typical mental health solutions:

- therapy

- medication

- support groups

Which solutions sound more fun? Wellness of course!

And which solutions are less expensive....

They’re especially appealing to HR leaders who, despite not having clinical expertise, are increasingly being expected to support employee mental health. This is a challenging position to be in, especially for a field that already tends to be overtaxed and under-appreciated.

So wellness approaches become an easy, cheap, and optimistic way to showcase that you value your employees. And yes, they sound great.

Unfortunately championing wellness activities as mental health ‘solutions’ often comes across as toxic positivity for individuals who actually need the most support...

In fact, a key trait of individuals suffering from mental health is that simply telling them to do positive behaviors is not enough, they do not have the capacity for it.

It's the same reason you wouldn’t go to a coach for individual therapy. It's one thing to know the things you should do, the magic of therapy comes in the personalized transformation process of getting people to do these things.

And really, at the end of the day we all know which activities we should do to feel good.

But when we’re struggling even just to get by in life, when every day feels like an insurmountable challenge, we don’t need someone sharing a sunny list of positive things that we should be doing. That can really be insulting.

It takes a mental health professional to work with people on developing the capacity to engage in and access the benefits of wellness activities.

But, therapy is expensive... even more so because of our post-Covid 19 nationwide shortage of therapists. So most serious mental health needs get delegated to the company EAP. Yet these have notoriously low engagement rates, around 4-6%.

Comparing that with the 20% of employees who already meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis, we can have a gap of over 15% (and this is assuming your EAP is giving people what they need effectively...)

And as a therapist, I've had personal experience with what it's like to work with EAPs as a provider. Let's just say they do not have a good reputation with therapists...

EAPs contract out mental health professionals, but they don’t pay them well (which is why your EAP is cheap) and thus don’t attract quality providers. This could be a poor first therapy experience for someone who's finally decided to reach out for support. A bad first therapy experience can turn someone off from reaching out for support again for years, even a lifetime.

Also it's important to know that most EAPs serve as crisis solutions instead of risk prevention. Yes, you need to have a safety net - but just like physical illness, mental health is much more manageable, and cheaper, if it's caught early.

So if EAPs are for crisis, and wellness initiatives are for the 80% of your people without mental health issues, this means many employees who have real needs fall through the cracks and are overlooked.

This will compound over time, so let's look back to wellness activities and this toxic positivity idea I mentioned earlier.

If your company is portraying wellness as a solution to mental health, people who are really struggling will internalize their “failure” to get better through these activities.

Actually one of the hallmarks of depression is a feeling of failure, or not being good enough. It doesn't matter if it's irrational, that's what makes it a mental health disorder. The fact is this is what the person will internally experience.

I've meet with clients whose depression worsened because people around them were unable to understand why they couldn't "just get better." They felt disconnected and isolated, and this made them want to give up.

The images of wellness can contribute to this. As nice as the self-care checklists look, or images of people meditating their anxiety away, these can push people away when they're presented as the solution. We must remember that often when we're so solution focused, people with real needs get quiet. It's hard to hear silence.

As we are starting to see, mental health is tricky! This is exactly what therapists are trained to address. HR should not be expected to be experts on these problems.

If you really want to address employee mental health, you need to work with a trained mental health professional in some capacity.

And no this does not mean providing expensive individual therapy for your entire workforce, or relying on EAPs that contract out poor quality therapists. There are many new and exciting programs and services that make the best aspects of individual therapy more accessible to your workforce. You can also consult with a mental health professional to get their perspective on your strategy for wellness investing.

Yes mental health awareness is growing, but it also means there are many untrained individuals coming into the space.

So the question you should always have when exploring options either for cutting-edge EAPs or wellness programs is - are there actual mental health professionals involved in this service?

Don't know where to start looking? Read more about our services in the experiences tab on this website for how we help engage employees on their mental health.


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