Published: October 31, 2023 | Updated: November 7, 2023

Mental health matters: Fostering a supportive work environment



COEUR d’ALENE — Nearly 40% of workers report that their work environment has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to the 2022 Work and Well-Being Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association.

With the average full-time employee spending about half their waking life at work, fostering a supportive work environment is more important than ever.

But how can employers in North Idaho create that kind of space?

Tracey Sutton, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of therapy services at Heritage Health, said the first step is to define a supportive work environment. It may look different from one workplace to the next.

“As a leader, I’ve got to understand who I have working for me and what the individual needs to feel supported,” Sutton said. “I want my staff to be able to bring their whole self to work.”

In Sutton’s workplace, that means giving employees the flexibility to pick up a sick child from school, take an ailing parent to a doctor’s appointment and otherwise attend to the parts of life that encroach on work. Every employee is different and Sutton said she strives to be responsive to individual needs.

“I create an environment where my staff feel comfortable telling me what those needs are,” she said.

To that end, Sutton has regular one-on-one meetings with her employees and makes an effort to get to know them. Relationships matter, she said, and developing and maintaining those relationships is her top priority as a leader in her workplace.

“Involve yourself without being invasive but in a way that is personable and connected,” Sutton said. “This is a very fast-paced world we live in and I think we need to slow down just enough for everyone to feel connected.”

North Idaho College is a major employer in the region that provides a dedicated wellness program to employees, along with other benefits that aim to support the mental health and overall wellbeing of employees.

“We’re trying to keep employees happy and provide benefits that make them want to stay,” said Andrea Woempner, benefits specialist at North Idaho College.

NIC’s wellness program provides incentives of up to $1,000 for employee-only coverage or up to $2,000 for employee and spouse or domestic partner coverage in deposits to their health reimbursement arrangement account, along with wellness exercise classes, access to online health and wellness education and more.

The college also provides an employee assistance program, which provides access to free mental health counseling. The program is available to all staff, whether full-time or part-time.

“It’s not just full-time employees who could be going through a mental health crisis,” Woempner said.

The program connects employees to a local counselor and also offers virtual counseling options.

When the college first implemented the employee wellness program 15 years ago, not many employers were offering such benefits. Woempner said some were skeptical, including the college’s broker at the time.

“We got another broker and they were gung-ho,” she said.

NIC created a three-year, five-year and 10-year plan for the program. Those plans have come to fruition.

The wellness program is believed to be a major reason why NIC’s medical insurance premiums did not increase this year, Woempner said.

That’s a big deal, for both the college and staff. Woempner noted that NIC’s budget for fiscal year 2024 includes the equivalent of an 8% compensation increase for full-time and part-time employees.

“Any wage increase they receive isn’t eaten up by their insurance premium,” she said.

Sutton emphasized that the workplace shouldn’t feel empty or without connection, given how much time people spend there.

“People stay at their job because they feel valued,” Sutton said. “The studies are really clear that a paycheck is really valuable. However, if people feel seen, if they feel valued, job satisfaction grows and there’s no better recruitment tool than somebody talking about feeling satisfied in their job.”