Embracing a New Mindset to Safeguard Employee Health

Jai Hooker@Work

Embracing a New Mindset to Safeguard Employee Health

By Terri L. Rhodes, CLMS, CCMP, CPDM, MBA, CEO, DMEC

We know the influence employers have when it comes to employee health and wellness. That knowledge informs benefit decisions and culture design as well as organizational absence and disability policies. For some progressive employers, that knowledge has prompted changes to the way work is structured — from office design to work hours, workload, and the control employees have over what they do and when they do it.

And momentum for this type of change is growing. In the United States, where mental health1 is at a critical low point, the surgeon general has made improving mental health a national priority. Globally, 135 organizations across six continents have signed the Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health Leadership Pledge,2 and a number of countries are investigating mandates to protect the mental health of employees.3

Acting strategically to ensure employee health is not new, but the correlation between better employee mental health and more successful employer outcomes will expedite meaningful change.

Changing the Status Quo

As a first step, employers must address a disconnect between what they offer to support whole-person health (mental and physical health, as well as substance use disorders) and what employees want and need. Two potential reasons for the disconnect: an increasingly diverse workforce and major differences among the four generations in workplaces. A recent study4 shows that 65% of Generation Z (Gen Z) employees are willing to self-report mental health issues compared with 51% of millennials and 29% of Gen Xers. That’s a stark difference that can influence leave of absence policies, productivity, and employee morale. Mental health affects the entire employment spectrum, which is why mental health issues have been a DMEC bedrock for 31 years.

Employers understand this but have questioned how they can have a demonstrable, positive effect. While employers have assessed physical risks in workplaces and invested in mental health coverage, they are separate initiatives — one in the workers’ compensation realm and the other in benefit design. For positive change, there must be integration within organizations that use data to identify and mitigate risks on the front end.5 This view might be new for some absence and disability managers and one that will be increasingly valuable to employers, a concept that will be illustrated during the 2024 DMEC Virtual Mental Health Conference Jan. 23 and Jan. 25.6

The Concept of Caring

It will be increasingly important for employers to demonstrate that they care about employees. Data from the 2023 Health on Demand Report7 shows that Gen Z employees are more likely to stay with employers that care about them, and 73% of employees “feel their employers care about their health and well-being.” The question employers should ask is why 61% of Gen X employees do not feel the same way.

To demonstrate care, employers must learn about their employees and use insights to customize absence and disability management programs. This knowledge will also help answer the question, “What can we do differently to ensure the mental and physical safety of our employees?”8

Moving the needle to improve mental health will require customized solutions designed with absence and disability managers at the table. We see firsthand how poor mental health influences physical health, recovery from injury and illness, and an employee’s ability and willingness to return to work. By tapping into organizational data to identify leave patterns, absence managers can avert issues that could result in more time away from work. Possible solutions include redesigning employee assistance programs based on employee need assessments, building managers’ skill sets to identify and refer employees showing signs of distress, and supporting employee resource groups and other ways to reduce mental health stigma.

The key is to talk with employees and discover their needs and wants before reengineering programs based on a consultant’s guidance or a report’s recommendations. And businesses must act early. While employers have provided safety nets with treatment, there are opportunities to invest in prevention when we intervene upstream.9

News about the acceptance of and legal framework for the use of psychedelic drugs could help us here. Data shows these treatments help more employees with substance use disorders and mental illness diagnoses stay at work and return to work more quickly.10 Several cities and states have passed laws allowing the use of certain psychedelic drugs, and the American Medical Association has approved billing codes, as noted during the 2023 DMEC Annual Conference. Psychedelic drug treatment should be on employers’ radar screen as they consider how their organizations will prepare for this reality and determine which processes and procedures will need to be assessed and revised to ensure compliance.

Mindset Matters

Asking questions early and often helps prepare employers for these types of changes and ensure regular review and analysis of processes and procedures. Employers that take an evolutionary approach to their culture and assess, tweak, and redesign to meet (if not exceed) expectations are more likely to succeed in an increasingly complex industry. This is true for employers of all sizes in all industries. New resources, like the Behavioral Health Vendor Engagement Template,11 can help employers ensure they find the best partners.

With multiple generations in the workforce, it is increasingly important to offer inclusive policies that appeal to employees of all ages, backgrounds, and interests. What worked for benefit packages in the past may not be enough today. Employers that ask questions and brainstorm solutions with employees will have a competitive edge. In this environment, training and education become even more valuable to charting the type of course where lifelong learners finish first.


  1. Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/workplace-well-being/index.html#framework
  2. The Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health Leadership Pledge. Retrieved from https://betterworkplacemh.com/sign-the-leadership-pledge/
  3. World Health Organization. Mental Health, Human Rights, and Legislation: Guidance and Practice. Oct. 9, 2023. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240080737
  4. Oliver Wyman. A-Gen-Z Report: What Business Needs to Know About the Generation Changing Everything. 2023. Retrieved from https://www.oliverwymanforum.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/ow-forum/template-scripts/a-gen-z/pdf/A-Gen-Z-Report.pdf
  5. Equalizing Mental and Physical Health in the Workplace. Absence Management Perspectives: A DMEC Podcast. June 26, 2023. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3TmF7l7
  6. DMEC. 2024 DMEC Virtual Mental Health Conference. Retrieved from https://dmec.org/conferences-and-events/virtual-mental-health-conference/
  7. MercerMarsh Benefits. Health on Demand 2023. Retrieved from https://www.mercer.com/assets/global/en/shared-assets/global/attachments/pdf-2023-health-on-demand-report.pdf
  8. Encourage Employees to be “Fearlessly Authentic.” Absence Management Perspectives: A DMEC Podcast. Feb. 9, 2023. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3FXyqy8
  9. Developing a Culture of Mental Health. Mar. 9, 2023. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/46KtGXr
  10. “How Can Employers Prepare for Psychedelics?” DMEC @Work magazine. July 18, 2023. Retrieved from https://dmec.org/2023/07/18/how-can-employers-prepare-for-psychedelics/
  11. National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. Behavioral Health Vendor Engagement Template. August 2023. Retrieved from https://www.nationalalliancehealth.org/wp-content/uploads/NationalAlliance_VET-Template_FINALII.pdf
DMEC-Related Resources