Many people with serious mental health conditions (SMHCs) need employment income in order to meet their basic needs and live independently in the community. However, challenges both in finding and in keeping a job have kept unemployment and underemployment rates high in this group. “Supported employment,” an evidence-based practice in which service providers help a person find and hold a competitive job, is a valuable resource. Yet even people who benefit from this approach may struggle to attain financial self-sufficiency if their jobs are low-paying or part-time, especially if these positions don’t qualify them for workplace benefits like health insurance, disability insurance, and paid time off.
While employee readiness is important, there are many other factors that can boost job longevity and success. By prioritizing these alongside employee readiness, we can create the conditions for long-term, sustainable employment. For instance, the potential value of social capital, or “the collective value of social network connections and resources that generate instrumental, informational, and emotional support,” has not yet been fully recognized. Strong social capital increases job satisfaction and retention for everyone — including employees with serious mental health conditions.
Organizational Social Capital
In addition to personal social capital, which includes the support and encouragement of close family, partners, and care providers, the role of organizational social capital is also critical. Organizational social capital refers both to positive social relations with supervisors and coworkers, and to policies and practices that promote healthy workplace norms — features strongly influenced by the culture of each specific workplace. Even an employee with the best job coach in the world can be derailed by an unfriendly or toxic work environment in which they experience discrimination, stigma, unclear expectations, or a murky and difficult process for requesting reasonable accommodations. As these are areas over which employers, not employees, have the most control, organizational leaders who want to help workers with SMHCs to thrive and contribute should consider introducing specific changes in workplace culture.
A Better Workplace for All
So how can employers impact workplace culture to support people with SMHCs? Usually, this shift is facilitated by changes in the areas of onboarding, supervision, and the process for requesting and providing accommodations. Wellness initiatives and SMHC awareness trainings can give all staff good information and tools to meet challenges as they arise, while making the workplace better for everyone. To support these initiatives, employees’ assumptions must be addressed, with leaders taking the important step of directly challenging stereotypes of people with SMHCs as incapable or helpless. Managers will need first to educate themselves, and then to follow up by issuing directives, changing job expectations, offering trainings, and endorsing the efforts of successful supervisors.
People with serious mental health conditions who don’t receive benefits or subsidies need jobs that pay a living wage and that provide crucial workplace benefits. Unfortunately, too many with SMHCs struggle to find and keep such jobs in workplaces unequipped to support their natural resilience. Fortunately, the changes that can lead to sustainable employment for people with SMHCs — such as individualized and regular supervision, efforts to reduce stigma, and efficient approaches to reasonable accommodation — are readily achievable. Furthermore, these shifts are likely to benefit organizations overall.