In July of 2020, mental health benefits provider Lyra Health and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions published a State of Mental Health at Work report that revealed an alarming reality about workplace mental health:
Over 69% of employees said the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health, and 40% were already battling burnout.
This was only four months into the pandemic.
The report, based on a survey of over 1,000 employees and 300 HR/benefits professionals also brought to light another harsh reality: Employers really need to step up.
Despite a prevailing belief among employers that they were successfully addressing workplace health and well-being, 40% of employees say their employer doesn’t care about their mental health, beyond their ability to be productive.
Too many employers say they support employee well-being … but their workplace practices and policies say quite another thing altogether. And employees see right through the charade.
As it turns out, supporting—really supporting—employee mental health requires a deep commitment and plenty of work from all levels of an organization. And that’s a stretch for a lot of companies, especially if they’re clinging to the antiquated idea that making room for mental health results in a less productive and profitable company.
Fortunately, we now know better:
- When organizations care about employee mental health, they put effective, helpful practices and support mechanisms in place.
- These mechanisms combined with a culture of openness and caring (and plenty of general support) help improve employee mental health.
- Employees are happier and more engaged. They call in sick less. Their work improves. So does their job satisfaction.
- The company’s retention rate improves along with their reputation as an employer. And the entire business thrives.
It’s simple: Supporting employee mental health helps your employees and your business.
But if your corporate leadership hasn’t yet bought into this idea, making your case to leadership might be a tough sell. That’s why we created this guide, which is intended to help wellness directors and HR leadership make a case for prioritizing and supporting workplace mental health.
Specifically, we will address:
- Workplace mental health today
- Employees’ top worries
- What gets in the way of employee mental health
- How to shift from surviving to thriving
- Adapting your workplace wellness program for employee mental health
Ready? Let's get started!
Click to expand each section below (you can use the arrow on the right-hand side to navigate back to the top of the page).
Before we dive into this crisis as it exists today, let’s take a quick look at the understandable circumstances that got us here. To put it mildly, it’s been … quite a year.
Employee Mental Health Care Used to Be a “Nice-to-Have”
Most company benefit plans have had some sort of mental health services—usually EAP (employee assistance program) or coverage with maximums on the number of visits or costs.
But those services weren’t used as much as they probably should have been. Employees were worried about confidentiality and wanted to avoid water cooler whispering.
As workplace wellness became more of a mainstream and acceptable topic to discuss, employers became more aware of depression, anxiety, and other disorders as real phenomena that needed attention. But those services were still “nice-to-have”. There still wasn’t much hard evidence linking employee mental health to employee performance, so employers simply focused on the squeakier wheels.
Then the pandemic happened, and all the wheels screeched to a halt:
- Essential workers faced crushing burdens, overwork, and members of the public who weren’t always polite about new public safety protocols.
- People who worked from home were more or less housebound, especially city dwellers who were cooped up in small apartments with roommates.
- There was little respite from the stress of rising case counts and fear over the health of loved ones.
- Parents—especially women—found themselves having to figure out how to be full-time employees and full-time teaching assistants.
- All of this was topped with a heaping helping of political upheaval at a time when stress and tension were already sky-high.
It was enough to make anybody want to greet each new day with (to quote Dorothy Parker), “What fresh hell can this be?”
The result? Many employees already living with mental illness found themselves in a full-blown crisis, while employees who typically enjoyed good mental health found their emotional states deteriorating.
A Workforce at a Breaking Point
While companies were doing their best to make things easier for employees to work from home, this was new ground for both parties, leading to shifting boundaries between work and home life and difficulty “switching off” at the end of the workday. In other industries, companies had no choice but to furlough and, eventually, lay off employees because there simply was no business.
At first, employees did their best to adjust to these changes. There wasn’t a sudden influx of mental health patients flocking to therapists’ offices, but it quickly became apparent to corporate executives and HR leaders that something wasn’t right:
- Employees were clearly experiencing anxiety, depression, fear, grief, loneliness, stress, and uncertainty.
- They were concerned about the future for themselves and their families.
- One in 10 employees said they considered harming themselves or others.
- Mental health care providers saw a 33% increase in suicidal thoughts among their clients.
- Not only were employees three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, more than one-third screened had both.
- Now that COVID restrictions are being lifted and offices are re-opening, employee mental health is getting even worse with return to work plans on the horizon.
Source: WellRight State of Employee Health and Well-being 2021 Report
Mental Health Trends
Springbuk is among several health care intelligence companies that surveyed employees and published a white paper about the top pandemic-related medical and mental health trends. It found that anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, and alcohol- and substance-abuse ran rampant in 2020, and women were being treated 50% more often than men.
Specifically, the study found that:
- Women experienced more anxiety, particularly women between the ages of 18 and 25 (I.e., many essential and hourly workers), as well as women over 40 (women with school-aged children and aging parents).
- Women aged 18 to 25 had the highest prevalence of depression, followed by women aged 26 to 39.
- Adjustment disorders became much more common in women aged 26 to 39.
- Men over 50 exceeded their pre-pandemic rate of alcohol and substance-abuse treatment, topping 2019 rates by 23%.
But even with all of this proof, employees still weren’t getting the care they needed ... because executives didn’t recognize the severity of the issue.
The Board Room/Break Room Disconnect
Nearly 85% of executives had plans to focus on mental health and physical health initiatives for the coming years, and half of them believed their health and well-being programs were addressing the issue.
Unfortunately, only 21% measured success using clinical improvement.
That might help explain why just over half of those executives said their previous well-being programs had only been moderately effective. It also indicates a disconnect between intention and execution when it comes to employee mental health services.
For companies to truly be successful in addressing employee mental health needs, they need to take a different approach—one that involves a fundamental paradigm shift.
But before we get to that, let’s look at what takes a toll on employee mental health.
Today’s work environment is NOT business as usual. The everyday low-grade stressors that used to be the norm have been replaced by constant emotional turmoil, thanks to COVID-19, politics, racial and social injustice, and the never-ending news coverage of violence around the country and the world.
To add to this daily cornucopia of shrieking horror, there was work stress to deal with.
Mental Health America (MHA) conducted its annual Work Health Survey asking 5,000 employees across 17 U.S. industries what caused them the most concern and contributed to their emotional and mental instability.
Four factors stood out:
- Financial insecurity
- Workplace stress
- Lack of management support
Let’s examine these in more detail.
1. Financial Insecurity
The pandemic forced employees out of the office, either to work remotely or because their positions were eliminated. Understandably, this instilled real fear among employees about their employment future, their ability to support their families, and their overall financial security.
In MHA’s Online Screening Program, 25% of employees with moderate to severe anxiety and depression said their biggest worry was about finances:
- Almost 60% worry they won’t have enough money to pay for their living expenses.
- Most employees don’t even earn enough annual income to save for an emergency.
- One-third of study respondents said they couldn’t pay for their health care.
- A recent CNBC survey reported that nearly 46 million people have wiped out their emergency savings.
2. Workplace Stress
Long gone is the traditional office environment. Some employees may have returned to their offices, but remote working has changed the landscape of the new work environment—in some ways for the better and in others, for worse.
Employees who come into the office have to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), physically distance, and even work alone in large spaces. Employees who work from home often don’t have childcare services, so they play the role of part-time teacher or caregiver while trying to work in the same workspace as their partner, spouse, other family members, or roommates.
Then there is the aggravation related to technology, sub-par home office equipment, and a fully-tapped home WIFI network that makes connectivity an issue.
Workplace stress—at home or in the office—is a definitely contributor to employee mental health struggles:
- Over 65% of employees say they can’t concentrate in their current work environment.
- More than 56% of employees feel their employer doesn’t create a safe space for people living with mental illness.
- It only follows that over half of employees are looking for a new job.
The World Health Organization defines burnout as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; reduced professional efficacy; and increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.”
Burnout is very much like a virus. Once it gets out of control, it can threaten the health of an entire company. Burnout lowers productivity and quality of work, it erodes job satisfaction and loyalty, and it leads to absenteeism and turnover.
The MHA Work Health Survey had some pretty stark findings about burnout.
Not only were most employees already in the early stages and feeling emotionally drained from their work, about one-quarter of them had reached severe burnout. That’s when things really start to sour.
Severe burnout is a gateway to reduced professional accomplishment and cynicism toward peers and the company. Eventually, employees become apathetic.
4. Lack of Management Support
Speaking of apathy, that’s how more than half of the MHA study respondents described their management when it comes to employee mental health. Almost 59% of employees said their supervisor doesn’t provide the emotional support they need to help them manage their stress.
This was based on the three things employees look for in a safe and welcoming work environment:
- Providing (and educating employees about) mental health resources
- Acknowledging employees regularly at work
- Easily accessible resources, such as insurance benefits or an EAP
Only half of employees said their supervisors check in on them, and about the same percentage said they felt comfortable talking to their supervisors to address what was causing their stress.
What’s become clear is that employees want open and honest discussions with their supervisors about job stressors. When those discussions don’t take place, it becomes a source of job dissatisfaction and mental health issues.
When people are in crisis, they tend to spiral out of control, especially when there are barriers to accessing help. Let’s take a look at the barriers that prevent employees from getting the mental health services they need.
HR.com released its own State of Mental Health Report this year and called out the signs that employees aren’t receiving mental health services in their jobs.
- Only 19% of employees saw a mental health professional for needed services
- 45% of those employees paid out of pocket for services
- An alarming 31% didn’t know what resources their employer offers
What can we glean from this data?
A lot, actually. Employees aren’t being supported, they don’t have access to mental health services, and the stigma associated with seeking help is alive and well in the corporate world.
Inadequate Support From Leadership
Remember that disconnect mentioned previously between company leadership and employees?
of CEOs say they’re accepting of emotional and mental health issues in the workplace, but only about a third of employees actually feel accepted.
A Ginger February 2021 “Third Annual Workforce Attitudes Toward Mental Health Report” demonstrated how problematic this disconnect has become:
- 96% of CEOs think they are doing enough for employee mental health, but only 69% of employees agree.
- 70% of CEOs say they’re accepting of emotional and mental health issues in the workplace, but only about a third of employees actually feel accepted.
- 84% of CFOs feel their company was successfully addressing employee mental health and morale during the pandemic, yet less than one-third of employees strongly agreed.
Lack of Accessibility
Accessibility is also an issue, and a major one.
Mental health care benefits are nowhere near as comprehensive as traditional health care benefits in most company-subsidized health plans.
The result? Employees forgo treatment because they simply can’t afford the out-of-pocket expenses or they fear their issues require more sessions than their benefits will cover. A 2019 study by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) revealed that cost was the top reason U.S. adults did not receive mental health services, and there’s no reason to believe that has changed in the past year.
Another accessibility factor is sheer demand.
The pandemic has made it almost impossible to schedule an appointment with a counselor—especially for a new patient. Mental health practitioners struggle with the same issues that primary care physicians do when it comes to adjusting to telehealth services and ensuring the safety of their patients and clients.
Social and Cultural Stigmas
Even if the health care access barrier was removed, employees still grapple with the social and cultural stigma of seeking help.
Almost 60% of employees have never spoken about their mental health status to anyone at work. And while 86% of employees feel that companies should foster a culture that supports mental health (Gen Z and millennials represent an even higher percentage), less than half of employees feel their company prioritizes those services.
Yes, that management-employee disconnect applies here too. When talking about the stigma related to mental health, it’s almost unbelievable how out of touch employers are with their employees:
of employers say they talk about mental health
of employees say it’s not discussed at all
What is contributing to this dissonance between leadership and employees? It may surprise you to learn that executives aren’t opposed to mental health services—it’s just the opposite:
- 80% of CEOs think that poor employee mental health negatively impacts worker productivity.
- 94% of CEOs have received mental health support over the past year.
- More than half of CEOs even say that talking about mental health makes them better leaders.
- They also acknowledge that nearly 90% of employees appreciate it.
But here’s the kicker:
- 56% of CEOs are concerned that talking about mental health might impact their credibility.
The stigma is present everywhere, and it’s standing in the way of employees feeling understood and pursuing help.
So, how do we finally make some much-needed changes and tear down the barriers that keep people from being at their best?
That’s where leadership needs to step up to the plate.
Corporate leadership is in a unique position to make enterprise-level shifts in cultural norms and the overall mindset that many experts feel will be the key to truly addressing workplace mental health.
The issue with past workplace mental health approaches is that they’ve been based on a survival mindset where disruptions are viewed as temporary crises or simple “hiccups” in the order of things. Once those disruptions are addressed, things are expected to return to normal.
If the last year has shown us anything, it’s how disruption can become the new normal.
When disruption is perpetual, organizations and employees in the survival mindset are in a constant state of anxiety, hopefully anticipating the return to how it was before. And when it doesn’t (as it never has throughout history), this creates disappointment, anger, hopelessness, and depression.
Thriving, on the other hand, is a mindset that views every disruption as a new reality, inviting new possibilities. It also views disruption as a given—a continuous state of change that can move an organization forward.
Essentially, the thrive mindset requires companies to adapt in the same way humans have traditionally done. And in that way, this mindset depends on an organization being “human at its core.”
Companies that are serious about making this shift should seriously consider the five trends identified in the 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, “The social enterprise in a world disrupted”:
Trend #1: Designing Work for Well-being
Instead of a survival model, where workplace mental health and well-being programs exist parallel to—but separate from—work activities, a thrive model designs work with wellness in mind by tapping into what will create the best working environment.
It takes place on three levels:
- Individual – Explore ways for employees to set their own boundaries and communicate their personal well-being needs without judgment.
- Team – Encourage teams to leverage their collective capabilities so they can learn, understand, and empathize with the well-being needs of their teammates.
- Organizational – Trust teams and employees to perform when designing work models, knowing that the well-being of employees will factor into goal achievement.
This trend also takes into account the environments in which employees work to make sure there is a human foundation informing work and well-being:
- Cultural: Build well-being into social behaviors and norms that can then be adopted at each of the three levels.
- Relational: Put strategies and tactics in place to foster well-being in relationships among colleagues, both between peers and managers.
- Operational: Include well-being in management policies, processes, and programs.
- Physical: Design and influence physical workspaces to facilitate well-being.
- Virtual: Make new technologies and virtual workspaces available when employees and teams work remotely.
Trend #2: Unleashing Worker Potential Beyond Reskilling
Workforce development models need to account for the dynamic nature of both work and the employees doing the work. In a survival mindset, leadership determines which skills employees need to learn and pushes training from the top down, forcing employees to fit into roles that may not bring them satisfaction or ensure retention. (How many people do you know who were promoted to managers but clearly do not enjoy—or thrive at—managing people?)
With a thrive mindset, employees are empowered to identify the skills and areas of development that align with their interests and passions. Since employees are typically on the “front lines,” working most closely with vendors and customers, they also have a better understanding of how their new skills and training can help improve service, quality, and customer satisfaction.
From there, employers can help people grow into the positions at which they’ll be skilled and enthusiastic, which is a winning recipe for excellence—and for better emotional well-being.
Trend #3: Designing Superteams
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of employee teams for support, productivity, and performance.
A survival mindset views technology as a means to an end for greater efficiency, but a thrive mindset examines how integrating employees and technology in a complementary way can re-architect work to be more human-focused and human-friendly.
Additionally, the concept of superteams emphasizes the importance of diversity within teams, with everybody bringing their own style of thinking to the table. Employees being valued for not just what they think but how they think is an important element in growing a culture where differences aren’t just accepted but appreciated. When people aren’t expected to fit into a homogeneous box at work and can embrace their unique selves, their well-being improves.
Trend #4: Governing Workforce Strategies
Companies need to have access to data and insights about their workforce so they can see how disruptions can be leveraged as opportunities. But all too often, they’re simply gathering historical, performance-related data.
In a survival mindset, organizational strategy is steered by metrics and measurements that are completely separated from employees and their on-going, ever-shifting experiences.
A thrive mindset, on the other hand, urges leadership to ask different questions, and to provide real-time insights that drive strategy. For instance, instead of setting a remote work policy and then reviewing the results months later, a human-focused workplace strategy would use employee surveys and insights to design a remote work policy—and to regularly adapt it to employees’ needs.
It’s embarrassingly obvious, but when companies get employee input before designing the strategies and policies that will affect them, workplace emotional well-being will improve.
Trend #5: Empowering HR to Re-architect Work
HR teams have truly proven their value throughout the pandemic, and they offer tremendous insight about how companies can continue to support employees’ needs while achieving KPIs set by senior management.
In a survival mindset, HR is merely a function within the organization, focused on optimizing and designing HR processes.
A thrive mindset sees HR as an enterprise-wide service provider that re-architects work to capitalize on the unique human strengths of employees.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means that if you’re in HR, your company needs to give you a much bigger seat at the table, because you have the insight and expertise that should drive how work is done within your organization. Instead of focusing on what you’re being asked for, you can influence what is possible, leading the charge to a more human-focused workplace.
Deloitte describes it as moving from simply “optimizing” the workplace, past “redesigning” it, and all the way into “re-architecting” it, where companies unstick themselves from convention and embrace a way of working that works for their people.
Companies that are serious about adapting their culture to be more human-focused have the opportunity to also improve their workplace wellness programs.
We’ve compiled some of the key points you’ll want to consider when adjusting your workplace wellness program.
Central to any effective employee mental health initiative is a company-wide workplace wellness program championed by a network of organizational leaders and adopted by your employee base.
In addition to implementing best practices in your wellness program—including an anchor challenge and employee-centric challenges—you also need to have a process for measuring success and catering to remote working environments.
Most importantly, you need to make sure your company mindset is prepared to thrive from the top down.
Create a Baseline
If you haven’t already done so, take the temperature of your employees to find out how closely their needs align with the study statistics referenced in this guide. This baseline will help you measure the effectiveness of programs and services, and it will allow you to make adjustments along the way.
Keep in mind that even if you’ve been trying to promote openness, social and cultural stigmas are hard to get past, so an anonymous survey will be best. You can also glean some measurements based on data that is traditionally linked to employee wellness, such as increased absenteeism or presenteeism.
Audit Your Company Policies and Culture
Organizations can’t talk the talk if they don’t walk the walk. Start by taking a hard look at your policies and procedures—both written and understood. Are they flexible and human-centered? Are you empowering your employees and teams? Is there an open and honest dialogue available to employees that they can access anonymously?
Your leadership plays a key role in modeling behavior and directing things from the top-down. Even one rogue manager who is dismissive, apathetic, or acts cruelly in response to an employee’s mental health needs can undo your efforts.
Create a Safe and Welcoming Environment for Employees With Mental Health Issues
Employers that demonstrated transparency, empathy, and flexibility during COVID-19 experienced a smoother transition than companies that weren’t attentive to workplace culture. In particular, the successful companies created a safe and welcoming environment where employees felt supported and understood.
It’s not too late to create this type of environment in your company. Consider these tactics in your plan:
- Hire and train supervisors to provide emotional support.
- Encourage employees to talk to their supervisors (and encourage supervisors to listen with flexibility and an open mind) about job stressors and how to remove them.
- Add regular employee check-ins to the list of measurements for supervisor performance evaluation.
- Make employee recognition a regular practice and have fun with it.
- Overcommunicate emotional support and mental health resources throughout the company.
- Offer paid mental health days, if you don’t already. Leadership should encourage employees to use these days (without questioning them or scowling when they actually use them). Additionally, encourage leadership to take mental health days themselves, and to be open about it when doing so.
- Designate a mental health services contact—much like an employee advocate—who can help employees figure out where or how to get care.
- Increase the number of covered mental health visits in your health plans. Get employee input on what level of coverage is reasonable.
- Give supervisors the authority to delay performance evaluations for employees who are struggling with mental health issues.
Implement Management Support Strategies
Employees reported that supervisor support was one of the key factors in seeking out mental health services. Make sure your supervisors know how to do this, as they may also be struggling with issues or are not sure how to guide their teams.
Conduct Regular Check-ins
This is especially important in a remote working environment when employees can feel isolated. The simple act of letting an employee know they matter and that their manager cares can make a world of difference when it comes to mental health.
Make sure to include bi-directional feedback to find out what employees need from management. Hand out kudos as often as possible, especially to employees whose confidence is suffering. For employees who are struggling, a little empathy will go a long way.
Remote employees who are having a difficult time with their mental health may not want to be on camera for group meetings, so don’t force them. However, encourage them to turn their cameras on for one-on-one check-in meetings, which will allow supervisors to identify signs that more support is needed.
Employers have already begun investing in software programs and digital tools to train managers how to pick up on subtle and virtual cues of employee distress.
Recognize the Early Signs of Burnout
On the trajectory to mental illness, burnout can be an early sign that something is awry, providing an opportunity for early intervention. In a supportive, thrive-mindset working environment, supervisors and fellow employees have the tools and training to monitor and address burnout before it becomes critical.
Supervisors can support employees with burnout by adjusting their workload if they are experiencing exhaustion, whether it’s by reducing their work or extending deadlines. In some situations, supervisors may encourage employees to take a personal day or plan a vacation to recharge.
Pay attention to continuously missed deadlines, unfinished work, or difficulty understanding assignments. Employees with mental health issues may find themselves overwhelmed by tasks that may have previously been simple for them.
Once employees begin to display cynicism or reduced professional proficiency, supervisors may need to resort to interventions such as a change of teams or projects. They may also work with employees to determine if there are other positions or responsibilities within the company that would better suit their skills or needs at that time.
Learn How to Handle a Mental Health Concern
It’s understandable for a supervisor to feel uncomfortable or not know how to handle a situation when an employee expresses a concern about their own mental health. But how that conversation is handled can shape what the employee does or does not do to address it.
If an employee expresses a mental health concern, here’s how the supervisor can help:
- Ask appropriate open-ended questions.
- Actively listen, giving undivided attention to the employee.
- Validate the employee’s feelings.
- Demonstrate empathy by expressing understanding back to the employee.
- Share information about your company’s mental health resources and encourage the employee to use them.
- Reassure the employee that they will be supported by you, their team, and the organization.
Model and Practice Healthy Behaviors
As we mentioned above, it’s not enough to just offer education and promote your company’s mental health resources and wellness programs. Management and senior leadership must model taking advantage of those services. Find ways to demonstrate that workplace mental health is an enterprise-level endeavor with participation across all departments and levels.
Take Advantage of Digital Solutions
With many employees likely staying in remote working environments into the future—for any number of reasons—the need to offer digital solutions that still maintain connection is more important than ever.
Workplace Wellness Platform
Make sure you’ve selected a fully-functioning wellness platform that can connect all employees and management, regardless of where they work.
Your wellness platform should also allow you to gather and analyze information about your organization that will help you continuously improve the mental health and well-being services you offer. It can also be a valuable resource center for detailed benefits information, including your EAP or other mental health offerings.
Digital Coaching and Mental Health Resources
When people need mental health support but keep running into barriers, it’s incredibly frustrating.
Fortunately, just like digital technology has allowed us to work from anywhere, it’s also now allowing employees to receive mental health support from anywhere, at any time.
Instead of finances and appointment availability delaying (or completely impeding) care, employees can easily access immediate and regular care through services like the solutions that WellRight offers our clients:
- Our digital behavioral health platform, Animo is built on a foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and offers anytime access to mental health resources via the web or mobile devices. This solution aligns with a thrive mindset in that it lets employees guide their own care and is accessible in areas where mental health professionals are in short supply.
- Our TextCoach™ mental health counseling solution pairs an independently licensed clinician with employees through secure text messaging. Employees can text with their clinicians at any time using their mobile devices. Coaching services have proven to be highly effective in assisting employees dealing with workplace stressors and some mental health issues. A comprehensive workplace mental health initiative would not be complete without it.
The old way of working just doesn’t work anymore.
And honestly, we wonder if it ever did, with employees bottling up and hiding their mental health issues until they reached the crisis point.
Using this guide as a starting place, you can work with senior leadership to re-evaluate your company’s mindset, how your employees rate their work environment as it relates to mental health, and how to adapt your workplace wellness platform to position your company as a great place to work.
To make the best use of this guide, make sure to download the PDF version and save it to your company knowledge base for reference.
If you would like assistance in evaluating your workplace wellness program and making it work better for your organization and your employees, WellRight can help. We’ve been working with companies throughout the pandemic and have a wealth of experience making this leap.