On the panel: Deborah Drechsel of Expedia Group and Michaela Doelman of Washington State’s Department of Enterprise Services (Photos by Eric Hwang)

Stress doesn’t just feel bad, it costs money. Eighty percent of workers experience it, which causes 1 million people a day to skip work, according to the American Institute of Stress. The total cost is estimated at $300 billion a year for U.S. This makes addressing the issue an imperative for companies. But how do they do that?

At a recent From Day One conference in Seattle, a panel discussion moderated by Rob Smith, editor in chief of Seattle Business, shed light on how companies can get a handle on the problem. It’s caused by a range of factors, including workload, people issues, work-life conflicts, and lack of job security.

Managers can start to address the issue by recognizing employees need to be comfortable being themselves and feel they are a part of an organization, said Kate Zimberg, vice president of talent and organizational capability at Seattle tech company F5 Networks. “Two parts of our mission are about embracing diversity and inclusion, and helping each other thrive,” she said. “It’s about kindness and how we can help each other be successful.”

Michaela Doelman, assistant director of workforce support and development for the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services, acknowledged that there is a lot of buzz about “bringing your whole self to work,” she said, but it can have limits. “What if the person is just a jerk? Is that an excuse? We have conversations about the importance of not having to hide a part of yourself.” She explained that if someone is queer and afraid to talk about their partner, or a mom fears taking time off for a sick child, or an employee feels they need to change the way they speak at work, “that takes mental energy and can impede a productive work environment. People need to feel they are accepted for who they are so they can do the job they were hired to do.”

More specifically, managers need to get to know their employees and pay attention to their work habits, Doelman said. “Let them know you respect who they are and ask what they need to be supported.” Zimberg added that she has seen stress among her employees and will approach them about it, telling them to go take a break in the company wellness room, or take a mental health day. “Sick days are not just for when you are physically ill.”

“No one ever talked to me about mental health,” recalled Roger Dowdy, vice president of mental-health strategies for Providence St. Joseph Health. “We have all had moments of knowing someone is struggling and maybe we should approach them, but no one tells us how.” Dowdy advises educating as many people as possible in the company–not just management. Think about training in CPR, of course, but also training for warning signs for suicide. “People who are suicidal don’t show signs at a doctor’s office; they show them in school or at work. If you have a willingness to ask questions if you see signs of distress, do it.” For help, he recommends Mental Health First Aid and Seattle’s Crisis Connections.

You don’t have to be in the same physical space to pay attention to the needs of your employees, says Deborah Drechsel, global director of coaching and learning delivery at Expedia Group. Much of the work her company does is virtual and over the internet. But she says that by training management and leadership alike in coaching programs, they can continue to maintain a level of human contact that might seem at odds with co-working on the internet. Doelman adds that managers should pay special attention to members of marginalized communities for signs of stress. “Racism doesn’t show up at work in a white hood. Racism is in micro-aggressions that happen daily. We have been blind to the impact it has on others.”

Another current stressor to be aware of is the opioid epidemic, says Dowdy. While it may not affect your employee, it could affect their friends or family. Managers should strive to destigmatize employees seeking help for themselves or their loved ones. “Every dollar invested in mental health brings back $1.62 to a company in return. So model behaviors that destigmatize mental-health care and accessing mental-health benefits,” he said.

Find out in advance where employees can get help, advised Teresa Blake, a nurse practitioner and regional medical director of One Medical, which provides regular and virtual visits for consumers and corporate employees across the U.S. “Primary care should be the first touch point for evaluating a patient’s mental health needs and working to develop a treatment plan and then monitor progress.”

The full panel, from left: Teresa Blake of One Medical, Roger Dowdy of Providence St. Joseph
Health, Kate Zimberg of F5 Networks, Drechsel, Doelman, and moderator Rob Smith of Seattle
Business magazine

If your company has an employee-assistance program (EAP), consider whether it works seamlessly with your existing medical-insurance programs, she added. Ensuring your EAP providers are also on your health insurance is one way to remove an obstacle in the way of employees getting help.

Programs like EAP need to remain top of mind, said Zimberg, not just something that you remind people of every year during open enrollment. Whenever there is whole-company messaging about a crisis, it’s an opportunity to remind workers about assistance programs. For instance, when there was a shooting in downtown Seattle in January, company emails about safety included a statement about how to access the EAP and the services available, she said.

You don’t have to know how to solve the employee’s problem to help them, said Blake. “You can start a conversation, check in with an employee who is starting to come in late more than usual, or missing more work than normal,” she said. “You can ask them how you can better support them, and if they don’t open up to you the first time you try, they may the second or third. It helps you build trust. And it gives you a chance to tell them that seeing their primary- care doctor is a great first step.”

Zimberg said some managers and executives worry more about having to make accommodations or fill out reports than about their employee. “Be a human,” she said. “Accommodations are there for a reason.”

Team leaders need to be champions of mental-health care, said Dowdy. If a mental health program is handed down from on high, it will go nowhere. Zimberg agreed that there has to be a culture in place for something to take hold. “We can, in HR, create a perfect program, but if employees don’t engage in it, share it, use it and feel the empowerment from their managers to use it, none of that matters.”

Lastly, check your work. Ask employees how you are doing in terms of supporting their well-being in and out of the office. But if you are going to do it, make sure you take action on the results, said Dreschel. At her company, they survey staff a couple times a year and leadership is evaluated in part on how employees respond to those surveys.

Be aware that those surveys are looking at data after the fact, said Doelman. “It’s like if you were weighing yourself after you ate the bag of chips. You have to find a way, systemically, to find a way to be proactive and get ahead of the issues.”

Lisa Jaffe is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national, regional and professional publications for more than 30 years. She lives in Seattle with her son and dog.