Mental health has always been one of the most important aspects of a person’s overall wellbeing. However, the system for taking care of people’s mental health has been broken for a long time – well before the pandemic. What COVID-19 has brought to light for many are the massive gaps in the distribution of mental health care, which leads to profound difficulties for those seeking it. It’s a problem that’s always been there. It’s just that now, there’s more urgency for employers to ensure they’re taking care of their people, helping them be healthier, able to contribute, and thrive.
“What COVID-19 has brought to light for many are the massive gaps in the distribution of mental health care, which leads to profound difficulties for those seeking it.”
For employers seeking to maximize the mental health of their employees, a foundational domain to consider investing in is social determinants of health. These are factors at the institutional, community, and systemic levels that impact people’s risk of developing mental health problems, such as health and health care, economic stability, social and community context, educational opportunities, and built environment.
“These are factors at the institutional, community, and systemic levels that impact people’s risk of developing mental health problems…”
As a benefits leader you may wonder just how much influence you can have over this sort of thing. As it turns out, employers can impact both small and large components of the various social determinants of health. By doing so, they can help ensure employees basic needs are met, and increase the chances for improved mental health.
Social determinants of health impact peoples’ mental health
When people are worried about basic necessities they have less time, energy, and mental capacity to take care of themselves. Any self-care they are able to engage in tends to be focused on physical health over mental health. Having access to healthcare and economic stability are, of course, critical for mental health because they enable people to access and afford mental health care.
But people also need supportive and stable social and community contexts, educational opportunities, and healthy environments to thrive. The chronic stress that emerges when people have long-term health or economic problems and unhealthy or unsafe living environments is a significant risk factor for the development of mental health problems. While employers can’t control all of these areas, there are steps companies can take to have a positive impact on every one of these social determinants.
“While employers can’t control all of these areas, there are steps companies can take to have a positive impact on every one of these social determinants.”
Health and healthcare
When people have good physical health, they’re more likely to have good mental health — and vice versa. For example, researchers have found that people with illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer are more likely to develop mental health problems. When physical illness and mental health conditions are both present, people fare far worse. By providing all workers with access to affordable health insurance, including preventative care, employers can play a large part in reducing physical and mental health risks for employees.
Most people feel stressed about money from time to time. But severe or long-term financial instability is harmful to both physical and mental health. For example, one study found that people who report major financial stressors also report greater psychological distress. People experiencing chronic stress are at greater risk for developing other mental health conditions. And, financial instability can keep people from seeking help for their stress or mental health difficulties. For instance, a single working parent without access to reliable childcare might not have a way to attend in-person therapy sessions.
Social and community context
For optimal mental health, people need to feel welcome and supported — not just in their local communities, but in society at large. However, there are certain factors that can make that support insufficient or even nonexistent. For example, systemic racism creates an environment in which people of color experience inequities that can harm both physical and mental health. Many Black people fear for their safety simply moving about in the world, experience or witness daily racism, and are disproportionately affected by chronic illness and COVID-19. In the same way that chronic financial stress increases the risk of mental health problems, long-term social stress caused by discrimination and inequity also escalates risk for mental health difficulties.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people with higher levels of education are more likely to lead healthier lives, and live longer overall. Higher levels of education can also help people improve their socioeconomic status, which is a well-established predictor of many physical and mental health outcomes. Providing employees with educational resources, such as training or tuition reimbursement, can help them access more stable, rewarding, and better-paying career opportunities. When employees make higher incomes and experience more job security, they are less susceptible to chronic illness and stress.
Another study found that people struggling with poor sleep, and other mental health conditions such as feelings of worry and anxiety, reported lower levels of job satisfaction as well. Career progression has also been shown to be at risk when employees are suffering from sleep disturbance, and burnout is also more likely when poor sleep is an issue.
If aspects of where someone spends much of their time — such as home, or an office — are unsafe or unhealthy, it can cause physical and mental stress. If someone doesn’t feel safe walking in their neighborhood, can’t afford a gym membership, and has a work schedule that makes it too hard to exercise, their physical and mental health are likely to suffer. Research shows that regular exercise can reduce stress and improve overall feelings of well-being. Built environment is not entirely about physical activity, but by looking at exercise, we can see a strong example of how employers can influence environments: Scientists have found that physical activity programs in the workplace are associated with significant reductions in feelings of depression and anxiety.
Where the rubber hits the road
While employers may not be able to impact everything affecting employees’ lives and mental health, there are concrete ways that companies can improve social determinants of health. Doing so is a smart step for benefits leaders who are committed to fostering strong employee mental health.
By addressing social determinants of health, employers can take a proactive step to ensure fewer people will need clinical help in the future. Dr. Juliette McClendon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine, advises that companies ask themselves this: “What benefits, policies, or procedures are in place across the organization to support protective factors and reduce risk factors for mental health?”
“By addressing social determinants of health, employers can take a proactive step to ensure fewer people will need clinical help in the future.”
To find the answers to that exact question, and uncover how to move forward in fostering an emotionally healthy workplace, we recommend exploring our newest resource the Mental Health Maturity IndexTM. The index was created in partnership with EHIR, numerous fortune 500 clients, and over 20 clinical experts and will help you understand how thoroughly your organization is addressing social determinants of health, where room for improvement lies, and what steps to take next.
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