Governors Lead on Solutions to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

More than half of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime and may experience associated barriers to entering and maintaining employment. At a time when nearly every sector of the economy is struggling with workforce shortages, Governors and private sector leaders are prioritizing worker mental health to improve both individual and statewide economic resilience.

During the National Governors Association’s (NGA) Winter 2023 Workforce Symposium, the National Association of State Workforce Board Chairs and the National Association of State Liaisons for Workforce Development Partnerships – affiliate networks of the NGA Center for Best Practices – heard from public- and private-sector leaders about strategies to improve worker mental health. Moderated by Marianne Gibson, Program Director for Substance Use and Mental Health at the NGA Center for Best Practices, the panel featured Assistant Secretary of Labor Taryn Williams from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy; Elisabeth Arenales, Senior Policy Advisor to Colorado Governor Jared Polis; and Anne Oxrider, Senior Vice President and Benefits Executive at Bank of America.

The conversation highlighted Governors’ leadership to support worker mental health and surfaced three key strategies for state workforce systems to better serve workers with mental and behavioral health conditions:

  • Foster interagency coordination;
  • Leverage private sector best practices and partnerships; and
  • Grow the behavioral health workforce.

Foster Interagency Coordination

State agency coordination to address mental and behavioral health can improve access to training and employment opportunities for people with mental and behavioral health conditions. Governors have an opportunity to engage a range of state partners, including departments of health, workforce development, vocational rehabilitation, education, and public safety, to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy. For example, Idaho Governor Brad Little created the Idaho Behavioral Health Task Force in 2020 to develop a statewide strategic plan for mental and behavioral health, engaging partners across all three branches of government. Colorado Governor Jared Polis established the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force in 2019, bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to create a roadmap for improving the state’s behavioral health system. Colorado has since established a Behavioral Health Administration to coordinate state partners and strategy on mental and behavioral health.

Leverage Private Sector Best Practices and Partnerships

Employers are increasingly prioritizing mental health and wellbeing as a key recruitment and retention strategy, presenting an opportunity for state workforce systems to both learn from private sector successes and forge partnerships to support employers in this work. As a leader in promoting worker mental health, Bank of America has worked to reduce the stigma of mental health conditions in the workplace, providing a suite of mental health supports and benefits to employees and joining with other employers to invest in the Mental Health at Work Index to better understand employees’ needs and measure progress in implementing solutions. State workforce systems can also provide guidance and resources to assist employers in creating workplaces that are supportive of employees’ mental health. The Michigan Department of Labor and Opportunity’s Mental Health in the Workplace hub that includes state and national resources to help employers integrate employee mental health strategies. States have also implemented mental health supports for state employees to serve as a model employer for the private sector. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services created a Worksite Wellness Toolkit to promote physical and mental wellbeing in state workplaces and also serve as a blueprint for private employers.

Grow the Behavioral Health Workforce

More than one-third of Americans live in an area with a shortage of qualified behavioral health professionals, exacerbated by factors including healthcare worker burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging workforce. Governors and state policymakers have an opportunity to develop short- and long-term solutions to address this shortage and increase access to services for workers facing mental health and behavioral health barriers to employment. As a critical first step, states may consider quantifying supply and demand for behavioral health services and identifying gaps in labor force and service availability, such as this needs assessment study conducted by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation, InnovateOhio, and Deloitte. States may then make investments in career pathways and training programs to increase the number of qualified professionals and create a sustainable talent pipeline. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers invested $9.1 million in ARPA grants to expand the state’s Qualified Treatment Trainee Grants Program and build educational pathways in behavioral health. Finally, states can reduce barriers to professional licensure for mental and behavioral health workers and provide recruitment incentives to meet more immediate workforce challenges. Illinois has allowed professional licensees who have been out of practice for less than five years to reactivate their license. The Oregon Behavioral Health Workforce Initiative provides a variety of incentives to grow the behavioral health workforce including scholarships, student loan repayment, and childcare and housing assistance. States may also consider participating in interstate compacts for licensing reciprocity, such as the Counseling Compact that allows professional counselors licensed and residing in a compact member state to practice in other compact member states.

Additional Resources

This commentary was developed by Sophia Yager, Policy Analyst in the NGA Center for Best Practices, and was funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor through the State Exchange on Employment & Disability. This document, and any other organization’s linked webpages or documents, do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor, nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.