Key points about mental health in the workplace:
- A majority of employees report worse mental health than prior to the pandemic.
- Many of these individuals are afraid to share their struggles.
- Improve mental health in the workplace by opening conversations about mental health, enacting supportive policies, and sharing resources.
- Download our Employee Wellbeing Email Template and Mental Health Resource Packet to easily share this information with your employees.
More than half of American workers report worse mental health today than before the pandemic. And the past year hasn’t brought an improvement—even as restrictions have eased and many are settling into the “new normal.” Employees are more likely than ever to say they’ve experienced burnout, stress, and depression. Anxiety affected 14% more employees in 2021 than in 2020; 84% of workers say they’ve experienced at least one mental health symptom or mental health challenge over the past year. It all adds up to what some have called an employee mental health crisis.
Combatting a crisis in the workplace requires cooperation and understanding from all levels of an organization; the guidance and leadership of HR professionals is crucial to instigating and implementing change. As Forbes points out, HR has always been tasked with meeting employees’ needs—and increasingly those needs are for behavioral and mental health support.
This post offers some context for the current status of mental health in the workplace, and practical ideas for supporting employees and ushering in a new culture of awareness, support, and understanding.
Common mental health issues
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and affects every aspect of daily life, including our work life. Challenges to mental health can come from burnout and stress or diagnosable mental health conditions including:
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance abuse, addiction
Experiencing mental health challenges or suffering poor mental health does not always indicate a clinical mental illness—but for 1 in 5 individuals, it can.
The National Institute for Mental Health is a valuable resource for detailed information and resources for specific mental health conditions.
Warning signs to watch for
Changes in mental health can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- Lack of concentration
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low motivation
- Excessive worry, sadness, or irritability
- Lack of energy or fatigue
- Headaches, stomach aches, or other aches and pains without obvious causes
- Changes in behavior, such as social or eating habits
Why employers need to offer mental health support
More than 80% of employees say they’ve encountered at least one workplace factor that negatively affected their mental health. Many of these factors—poor communication, stress, excessive workload, fears about job security—have become exacerbated by the pandemic.
It is crucial to understand these factors and endeavor to address them. At the same time, organizations must find ways to help employees by offering effective mental health support. Doing so benefits employees, employers, and the business as a whole.
Healthier, happier employees
According to research by the Harvard Business Review, employees who feel their employer offers appropriate mental health support are 26% less likely to report a symptom of a mental health condition. In most cases, they are also:
- Happier in their jobs
- Better communicators
- More comfortable talking about their mental health concerns
- Less likely to miss work
- More likely to perform to expectations
- More likely to remain with their company
Treating mental health conditions appropriately and with proper care helps keep employees healthy, safe, and feeling appreciated. Supporting employee mental health is, after all, a necessary part of supporting overall health and wellness.
The Great Resignation, ignited by the pandemic, in part stems from workers recognizing their dissatisfaction with a current job situation. They may leave their current employment in search of a new challenge or a new way to apply their skills—or they may be looking for better work-life balance, a more flexible schedule, reduced stress, or an escape from an unhealthy work environment or an escape from stress or an unhealthy work environment.
While these are complicated and varied situations, there’s no doubt issues like stress, burnout, and other unsatisfactory working conditions drive many workers’ decisions to leave their jobs, if not the workforce entirely.
According to the World Health Organization, a negative working environment “may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism, and lost productivity.” The WHO finds workplaces that keep mental health front and center are much more likely to “reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.” When employees are healthier and happier, businesses enjoy the benefits of higher morale, performance, and retention rates.
Ways to support mental health in the workplace
Effective support can only come through a holistic strategy that addresses long-standing barriers and unhealthy workplace habits, and ensures assistance and benefits are adequate and accessible. Here are some actions to consider as you develop a mental health strategy for your organization.
Foster open conversations about mental health
Considerable misinformation and stigma still surround mental health. In fact, 68% of workers fear repercussions, including losing their job, if they disclose a mental health concern. Your company may offer top-tier medical benefits, but these are wasted if employees are uncomfortable coming forward to ask for assistance.
The fear and shame around mental health can be reduced by ensuring the workplace (whether office-based or remote) is a safe space for people to ask questions, make requests, and disclose their concerns. Some ways to encourage these conversations:
- Position leaders as allies. Managers and other leaders sharing first-hand experiences with mental health struggles goes a long way to breaking down stigma: 90% of employees say they appreciate a CEO willing to set an example by discussing mental health.
- Model healthy self-care behaviors. Encourage leadership to exhibit self-care by making time for walks, taking a day off as a mental health break, setting work/life boundaries—and talking about it.
- Offer training. Hold workshops on how to talk about and support mental health, and what to do in case of crisis. Consider a seminar on stress reduction and self-care techniques. Education is key to demystifying mental health.
- Brainstorm as a group. Invite staff to help generate solutions together. How can a team support a flexible work schedule while ensuring tasks are completed? How else can mental health concerns be accommodated? This may generate creative solutions without singling out individuals.
- Focus on individual needs. If an employee seems to be struggling, be proactive. An informal one-on-one conversation is sometimes the best approach. Encourage managers and leadership to check in with individuals on a regular basis.
- Discuss mental health at company meetings. Make mental health a regular point of discussion. The only way to normalize conversations about mental health is to have them regularly and openly.
Create formal workplace structures or programs
Practical ways to formalize and publicize mental health supports include:
- Raise awareness of health benefits/insurance or assistance programs that relate to mental health through meetings and other communications.
- Implement guidelines about working after-hours.
- Encourage regular breaks and vacations; implement hassle-free time off for mental health.
- Implement or update anti-bullying policies.
- Implement policies that support family caregivers.
- Provide printed resources about mental health.
- Create a stress-free process for accommodation requests or disability planning for those with mental (as well as physical) health concerns.
- Ensure well-being and mental health education is part of all leadership training.
- Consider designating a mental health leader or wellness champions to monitor workplace programs and employee well-being.
- Offer access to appropriate wellness applications and digital health solutions.
- Create policies that give your employees more flexibility.
Give employees a say
In many cases, the switch to remote work and changing work protocols of the last two years have left employees feeling disconnected. As you try to eliminate practices or standards that are leading to burnout and stress, ask employees for input.
It’s time to listen—and hear what your team needs to do their best. Ideas to consider:
- Create channels for employees to voice concerns about their workplace, workload, and well-being, whether that be pulse surveys or one-on-one conversations.
- Follow up surveys with results sharing and action to create a constant feedback loop.
- Work with managers or team leaders to make sure information flows from all levels.
- Empower employees to prioritize their work and ask for assistance when required.
Ensure access to resources
What mental health-related benefits are available through your employee benefits package? Are they robust enough? If you’re not sure, call your provider to determine if the assistance:
- Meets varied mental health needs, from burnout and stress to PTSD or bipolar disorder.
- Provides timely access to therapy, both in-person and virtual.
- Includes a diverse list of health care providers to meet all needs.
- Includes general wellness and fitness offerings, which may decrease stress and burnout.
Be sure employees know what services are available through their work, and how to access them. Prominently post contact information for crisis lines and mental health-focused organizations.
Building a Healthy Workplace for All
Supporting the mental health of individuals while working toward a more resilient and understanding workplace is an ongoing journey. Start by opening conversations and sharing information.
Download our Employee Wellbeing Email Template and Mental Health Resource Packet to easily share links to important organizations, crisis numbers, and other resources with your employees.