Academic Minute Podcast

Matthew Cronin, George Mason University – Why Current Approaches to Workplace Mental Health Aren’t Working

Current approaches to workplace mental health aren’t working.

Matthew Cronin, professor of management at the Donald G. Costello College of Business at George Mason University, explores how to change this.

Matthew A. Cronin is a professor of management at George Mason University. He received his PhD in organizational behavior from Carnegie Mellon University.

Special thanks to Jeanette Patrick and James Patrick Ambuske of R2 Studios, housed within the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Why Current Approaches to Workplace Mental Health Aren’t Working

Mental health challenges affect a staggering 20% of employees, so it’s good news that companies are paying more attention to mental health of late. The not-so-great news is that the research that companies rely upon to inform their mental health interventions has a couple of consistent blind spots.

My co-authors and I examined 556 academic studies on workplace mental health. We found that researchers used the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably. Why is that a problem? Because there’s a world of difference between the kinds of issues we all may go through from time to time, such as fleeting bouts of depression, and clinically diagnosable syndromes, disorders, etc.

We also saw that when it came to mental health, recommendations leaned heavily toward passive or reactive approaches. For example, about 78% of U.S. employers offer mental health benefits. And let’s be clear – these are essential for employees experiencing mental health challenges. But why wait until employees are struggling before intervening? After all, when the threat is to physical safety or well-being, we don’t take a wait-and-see stance; we anticipate and try to prevent potential harms.

To that end, we urge companies to take proactive steps to redesign the workplace as a safe space for mental health. This would look different for each workplace, of course, but could involve such measures as cracking down on workplace bullying, revising job descriptions to clarify core responsibilities, and providing resilience training to help with stress management.

These proactive remedies contribute to a positive environment in which mental health is no longer stigmatized. And to the extent possible, they also prevent mental health challenges from escalating into mental illness episodes requiring clinical intervention.

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