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Mental health challenges like anxiety, excessive stress, and depression touch a large number of employees in the US. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives and 40% reported that their job was “very or extremely stressful” (survey by Northwestern National Life). Despite the impact stress and mental health issues have on productivity, performance, and retention, employers often don’t prioritize addressing mental health  workplace wellness. According to the American Psychological Association, Stress in America Report, 61% of adults reported that managing stress is extremely important, but only 35% report that they are managing stress well. This means only roughly half of individuals experiencing stress, burnout, and anxiety receive the care they need. So, why the massive gap? Research shows the stigma associated with seeking care is the foremost factor in play across many employer organizations.

Fortunately, human resources professionals are in a position to help close this gap and many innovative companies are starting to offer mental health benefits as part of workplace wellness programs. Yet, in order for mental health wellness benefits to move from “innovative” to mainstream, two things need to happen: 1) employees must feel that privacy and anonymity are guaranteed, and 2) employers should choose programs that deliver evidence-based results and lead to measurable, meaningful change, and not only “feel good now” impact.

Building awareness around mental health and normalizing workplace stress and anxiety is the first step in establishing a support program that employees feel safe using. HR leaders can move their organization in this direction by encouraging open discussion about the importance of mental health and emotional wellness at the workplace. Making mental health awareness and treatment an organization-wide focus and topic of discussion is one way to achieve this with both employees and management. What does that really mean?

Here are some actionable steps worth considering:

1. Promotional campaigns designed in collaboration with subject matter experts to raise awareness and challenge myths around stress and mental health.

2. Direct employees to an internal webpage where employees can complete anonymous and confidential screening that links employees to appropriate resources.

3. Offer employees evidence-based interventions that are shown to help prevent mental health problems and reduce symptoms (as opposed to those that promise quick fixes).

4. Change computer screens to prompt employees to take a screening.

5. Incentivize participation in wellness programming.

Leveraging the momentum generated from these promotional campaigns, HR and talent teams can align at-risk employees with mental health support programs. But first, how can HR and talent teams reassure at-risk employees that the programs are private and anonymous, and can be used securely during times that work best for them?

When confirming the privacy of a program, it’s helpful for employers to consider the challenge in two ways: 1) protecting employee information from external parties, and 2) protecting employee information from the HR team. While employees want to know their information is safe from the outside world, they also want to know their information will not be shared with their management teams.

Let’s start with external parties. This can be addressed by identifying partners with a track record of data security and clear protection methods in place. Internal privacy (#2 above) can be achieved by finding partners that offer account anonymization as a part of their process.  “Account anonymization” is a bit of a mouth-full, but the idea is pretty simple. Basically, some programs can remove personal identifiers from data, like an employee’s name, so the resulting information isn’t personally identifiable. Make sense? Employers can also make it clear that any employee information sharing will only occur in the form of aggregate, company-level reports.

When discussing privacy, questions about when and where an employee can access their support program might come up. Employees should have the choice to use programs at a time and place when they feel comfortable, whether it’s at the worksite, on their commute, or at home. By providing this flexibility, employees can access programs at a time that feels convenient and private for them, which results in greater engagement and better outcomes compared to more rigid programs. At Lantern, our mobile app provides quick, easy access for employees. Yet, it isn’t a “quick fix”; Lantern involves daily 10 minute long practice sessions that are proven to lead to long-term, meaningful changes. In our app, one can listen to a podcast explaining research-backed cognitive behavioral techniques, engage in relaxation training, and check in on goals with their coach all within 10 minutes, at a time and place that’s best for them. We find most employees use Lantern during times when mental health care providers typically aren’t available, like during lunch, on their commute, and right before bed.

Overall, HR professionals have an incredible opportunity to create a culture of acceptance around mental health, while providing adequate privacy standards to protect users and make them feel comfortable using support programs. At Lantern, we’re excited about the focus many talent leaders are placing on mental health programs in 2016. We’re looking forward to being a part of their journey to deliver evidence-based programs that employees feel safe using, when and where they need them most.