New Colorado program helps employers address workers’ mental health

Employees at a Colorado construction company, a probation department, local school districts, a financial services organization and Children’s Hospital Colorado have wildly different missions, but share a key commonality: Their bosses are investing in worker mental health.

“It’s really gratifying to get to help so many people by virtue of owning and running a business and you get to be a part of a solution that really helps people,” said Nick Williams, director of operations at Absolute Caulking and Waterproofing. “…Some employees have said this is the first time they feel like their mental health is under control.”

The Wheat Ridge-based construction company is among dozens of Colorado employers prioritizing worker mental health using a new online program designed by local experts.

The Center for Health, Work and Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health partnered with the University of Colorado’s Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center to develop and launch the Workplace Mental Health Module, an online toolkit for employers wanting to raise awareness and improve their employees’ mental health.

Since the pandemic, almost half of U.S. workers, 46%, admitted to suffering from mental health issues, according to a survey of more than 1,400 American workers conducted by StanCorp Financial Group Inc. The suicide rate among the U.S. working-age population increased 34% from 2000 to 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Liliana Tenney, the associate director for outreach at CU Anschutz’s Center for Health, Work and Environment, said that while worker safety may conjure images of hard hats and neon yellow vests, employee mental health can also pose a workplace hazard if left unaddressed.

“These organizations participating in the new module are acknowledging that,” Tenney said. “They want to figure out how to train their managers to have these types of conversations. They’re getting asked from team members how to better support caregivers, how to support employees who have been isolated working remotely, how to reduce burnout among the profession.

“It’s been helpful to have a lot of these issues be front and center so that employers can capitalize on this as an opportunity to advance and build new policies and programs into these institutions.”

The Workplace Mental Health Module, part of a certification and advising program out of the Colorado School of Public Health called Health Links, helps organizations assess their existing mental health supports through a survey for higher-ups, and then provides management consultations and advising sessions with recommendations to best help employees, said David Shapiro, program manager for the CU Anschutz Center for Health, Work and Environment.

The survey covers workplace culture, employee benefits, training and education, and equity and accessibility. From there, organization leaders are given a report card based on their survey results and provided consultations with experts to map out how to move forward.

The service offers three plans ranging in annual cost from $180 to $450 that differ based on the number of advising sessions the company receives.

“There’s science that shows that employers who support mental wellbeing can improve job satisfaction, retention and recruit high talent,” Tenney said. “The main benefits are around employee satisfaction and morale.”

“Losing people at a startling rate”

Williams likened the mental health struggles plaguing the construction industry to an epidemic.

Male construction workers had among the highest suicide rates among American workers, according to a pre-pandemic study by the CDC.

“It’s a big problem,” Williams said. “A lot of it is tied to depression, anxiety and substance abuse, so in order to protect and secure the future of our industry, we need to do something about it, collectively and individually. We need passion and resources behind this… because we’re losing people at a startling rate.”

Construction employees have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse as the national average. Around 15% of all U.S. construction workers have a substance abuse disorder compared to 8.6% of the general adult population, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

“We talk a lot about opioid awareness because, in construction, we do a job where our exposure to injury is much higher, so… opioids get introduced through worker’s comp cases so we embrace alternative therapies like physical therapy, massage, dry needling and non-opioid pain killers and try to develop an opioid-free plan,” Williams said.

At the suggestion of experts from the mental health module, Williams provided an anonymous survey to his company’s construction employees in which they were encouraged to share resources they’d like to see. Responses included help with anxiety, depression, addiction and substance abuse.

Williams said employees can access help through their health insurance but also have options to get care through third-party alternatives that are made available to them.

Having leaders who discuss and prioritize mental health is a key indicator in whether an organization is doing well on this front, Shapiro said.

“If you have a leader that’s committed to talking about mental health, it’s an area put in the forefront because they get it and understand how important it is,” Shapiro said.

Emily Sharpe, director of Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America’s wellness program, said the financial services company has offered a wellness program for more than 60 years and found the Colorado-based mental health module to be another step in increasing workers’ wellbeing.

During COVID-19, TIAA employees were fielding an increased number of calls from clients about family members who had retirement accounts with the association and had died from the coronavirus. In response, TIAA’s wellness program developed a grief support service for their associates dealing with those calls.

“I think that over the last 18 months, we have definitely had more requests from associates saying we need to talk about this more,” Sharpe said. “They’re so grateful that they work for a company that really does bring awareness to these topics.”

Other local industries using the mental health module include the 18th Judicial District’s probation department, Aims Community College, Children’s Hospital Colorado, Encore Electric, the city of Westminster, the Aurora Chamber of Commerce and a slew of local school districts.

Importance of uncomfortable conversations

Among those school districts is Greeley-Evans School District 6, whose leaders are hoping to help teachers address their mental health needs so they can better serve Colorado students, said Kara Sample, assistant director of the district’s nutrition services program, which houses its wellness program.

“We encourage our teachers that before they can take care of their students, they need to be taking care of themselves,” Sample said. “Mental health is a huge piece of that.”

After consulting with the mental health module, Sample and district wellness coordinator Rachel Hurshman said they hope to work on making sure staff, including managers and supervisors, are comfortable discussing mental health through training programs and more open dialogue.

“These can be difficult conversations,” Sample said. “It’s a topic people aren’t always comfortable opening up about. That creates barriers. Plus, time is our most valuable resource and like any organization, we’re all busy. It can be hard to place the amount of time and focus on something like mental health, but the topic really deserves it. It’s hard work, but it’s so vitally important for our employees.”

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