How to Form a Mental Health Employee Resource Group

Written by

Jen Porter, Bernie Wong, and Kelly Greenwood

How to Form a Mental Health Employee Resource Group

Every month at Best Buy’s campus headquarters, members of its employee resource group (ERG) used to meet to share their stories. In February, the group discussed the black community and mental health. In November, they focused their talk on veterans. In other meetings, the group has examined the relationship between mental health and sexual assault, how members manage OCD, and how mental health impacts women. Recently, the group has been meeting virtually to discuss their mental health during the pandemic. Coming out of a meeting, one employee said, “This is the most impactful thing I have done here.”

ERGs are created to build community among people with shared identities or experiences at work. When done thoughtfully, those that focus on mental health promote diversity and inclusion and provide support for employees managing symptoms of mental health conditions. In fact, the most effective are well-poised to address the three top methods of reducing the stigma around mental health: social connection, education, and peer support.

Despite the significant need for more programs like these, they are not yet widespread in the United States. Consider that nearly 60% of U.S. employees experienced mental health symptoms last year, and yet eight in 10 workers did not seek treatment due to shame.

Business leaders should regard this as a serious problem. Unaddressed mental health conditions cost U.S. companies nearly $17 billion per year in productivity loss. In terms of hiring and retention, younger employees in particular are demanding change: 50% of millennials and 75% of Gen Z employees have left a prior role for mental health reasons — compared to 34% overall. These are numbers we expect rise in light of Covid-19. In a recent survey of 1,200 U.S. employees, almost 70% of workers said that the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their careers, and in study of 2,700 global employees, more than 40% said their mental health has declined since the outbreak.

At Mind Share Partners, we believe that mental health ERGs are an important part of the solution. We’ve spent the last two years working with leading companies as they launch and grow their programs. Today, as employees prepare to re-enter the workforce, more companies are realizing they need to do the same. Below, we want to share the critical steps we’ve seen businesses with impactful mental health ERGs take, and how you can do the same.

Understand what mental health really means.

Many companies view mental health as a sub-set of other communities, such as those involving employees who manage disabilities, participate in general wellness, or are neurodiverse. As a result, employers who have programs targeting such communities may think they are also supporting people managing mental health conditions when, in fact, they are not doing enough.

Unlike many disabilities, most mental health challenges are treatable and prevalence is near ubiquitous over the course of a lifetime. Framing mental health as a disability can actually deter those whose experience of mental health is invisible or temporary, or those who see mental health as having positive attributes. In a similar vein, framing mental health as a part of wellness, and only focusing on upstream experiences like stress management, mindfulness, or resilience, can increase the stigma for those facing diagnosable conditions — especially if those are never named.

This is why we recommend creating an ERG with mental health as the primary focus, or, at a minimum, defining mental health as a focus area of a more broadly defined ERG. Doing so helps narrow the focus and reduces barriers to entry for people who may not identify with the larger group. Further, ERGs that try to address all aspects of wellness or disability, without distinction, run the risk of “charter overload,” according to Rachel Parrott, diversity & inclusion manager at New Relic.

Build a coalition to get started.

If your company has an established process for launching an ERG, be ready to make the case for why mental health is important. Find other employees to advocate with you in order to demonstrate that the need exists. When possible, finding an executive to sponsor the group is a good way to garner strong support.

If your company doesn’t have established ERGs, start small with whatever avenues you have available. For example, begin a mental health Slack channel or hold an informal lunch-and-learn. Anything you can do to demonstrate interest and initiate conversation will go a long way in making a valid case.

As your group becomes formalized, make sure to get your legal and HR teams onboard early in the process. If your legal or HR team is hesitant to engage with mental health, be prepared with examples of other companies with mental health ERGs. Because mental health conditions are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legal can help make sure your name, mission, audience, and activities are in compliance with privacy laws.

Specifically, employers must take care not to create a situation where an employee might inadvertently or unwillingly disclose a mental health condition simply by joining an ERG or participating in a group activity. To avoid this, groups should be framed as serving people impacted by mental health, whether personally, as a caregiver, through a family member or friend, or as an ally. Zillow, for example, addresses this by including allyship in its group’s name: “Able and Disabled Advocates Partnering Together.”

Make it safe for people to share their stories.

Among the most powerful tools that an ERG has is the ability to create a forum for storytelling. In our work with companies, we’ve found that storytelling reduces isolation, creates community, and reduces the stigma of mental health. For employees who aren’t seeking help because they feel ashamed, it tells them “you’re not alone.” For those who don’t know where to get help, it gives them a path forward. For those who feel overwhelmed with the demands of being a caretaker, it builds connection.

There are several ways you can create a safe space for people to share their stories in your group.

At some companies, such as Best Buy, the forum is private with “Vegas rules,” meaning information discussed during meetings is confidential. Alternatively, peer listening programs, such as the Peer Network at Reuters, facilitate private, peer-to-peer conversations about mental health.

Both types of forums set “communication ground rules” to give employees guidance on safe ways to engage with one another. Often, group members are asked to be mindful of giving advice and share mental health tips in general terms rather than acting like a therapist. Most importantly, they must follow company guidance for seeking help if someone is in danger of harm.

In other companies, employees choose to be more public. An employee at Lucidchart, for instance, led a lunch-and-learn during which she shared her experience with generalized anxiety disorder. As part of Pinterest’s annual KnitCon event, held as a series of virtual workshops this year, two employees discussed mental health in the time of Covid-19 and shared a framework about how to reach out for help. And Verizon Media organizes meetings around a movie viewing or board game. The set up is meant to encourage group discussions around how the brain works or one aspect of mental health.

When considering how to facilitate storytelling in your own group, remember there is no “right way” to do it. Whatever you decide, get input from your members and test out ideas that work for everyone.

Educate everyone.

Although mental health experiences are common, they are also associated with high levels of shame due to widespread misconceptions, such as “mental health conditions are rare” or “only experienced by low performers.” ERGs provide a way for you to educate your organization otherwise. By hosting lunch-and-learns, and sponsoring trainings and events, ERGs can reach people impacted by mental health who might not be willing to join a group as a result of the stigma.

Organizations looking to ramp up their virtual resources during this time can follow in the steps of companies like RetailMeNot. Their mental health ERG, RMN caRe, educates employees via a dedicated Slack channel, ongoing remote events with outside speakers, and written guidance on mental health benefits and policies.

We’ve also seen mental health ERGs partner with other identity-based groups to offer employees support. This strategy is particularly effective because mental health prevalence and causes often differ among communities. Employees who identify as LGBTQ+ are three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition. Women are more likely than men to have received a mental health diagnosis, but are also more open to getting treatment. Mental health ERGs are especially well-positioned to work with such groups and facilitate nuanced conversations about community-specific experiences.

Get companywide support.

ERGs are just one component of a broader movement of culture change for mental health at work. While they are a powerful tool for education and community building, ERGs must receive both top-down and bottom-up support to be successful. It’s imperative for executives, specifically, to verbalize the importance of mental health at their company and, where possible, share their own experiences to ensure that their message isn’t viewed as simply “checking a box.”

Those looking for inspiration can follow in the footsteps of CEO Guru Gowrappan at Verizon Media. He recently shared a video featuring employees discussing the need to reduce the stigma and invested in training his executive team. Gowrappan wrote about the session in his weekly all-staff email and several leaders followed suit by reaching out to their teams to communicate their support for mental health, expressing a desire to continue the conversation. “I could see how committed leaders were,” one employee told us.

Still, speaking out alone is not enough. Companies need to back up their claims with sufficient and easily accessible mental health benefits, so that employees who do need help can get it. While this may seem expensive, it won’t go without reward. Companies that pursue organization-wide culture efforts can expect a 6:1 ROI.

Like any initiative, ERGs that are under-resourced and lack real influence will do little to change the overall culture at a company. However, if integrated with company priorities, they can be a powerful grassroots way of creating healthy workplaces. As companies continue to weather the Covid-19 outbreak and plan for a return to the office, those who have effective mental health ERGs, as part of a broader mental health strategy, will see higher engagement, increased productivity, and fewer instances of burnout.

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