In the past few years, organizations have shifted their focus to employee mental health more than ever before. So much progress has been made that in 2022, 54% of U.S. employees actively requested and took mental health days off work.
But one disconnect still lingers—48% of those employees didn’t tell anyone, including their managers, that their PTO was for a mental health-related issue.
Stigma surrounding mental health conversations and cultures of presenteeism are two of the biggest deterrents to mental health progress in the workplace. As of 2023, 52.2 million Americans struggle with at least one mental illness, and more than half (28.1 million) have not received proper treatment.
Securing treatment becomes even more complicated given that 5.5 million Americans are also uninsured, making it difficult to obtain that necessary care.
As Mental Health Awareness Month approaches, now is the perfect time to assess how mental health is addressed in the workplace. Doing so will uncover what accommodations are needed to foster belonging, erase stigma, and bridge the gap between employers and employees.
Why a Mental Health Day Off Work Is the Break Employees Need
On the heels of several ongoing global, political, and cultural shifts, workforces are juggling more mental health obstacles than ever before. While workplaces are just beginning to conform to the unique needs of employees, intensive workloads, insufficient coverage, and persistent stigmas often exacerbate the problem.
With today's generational workforces bringing an assortment of diverse and unique needs to the table, concerns about the turmoil of modern life—such as the rising cost of living, climate change, and retirement planning—are paramount. These factors can lead to exhaustion and unrest, ultimately resulting in increased stress levels among employees.
In particular, a significant percentage of Gen Z and millennial employees feel burned out due to the intensity of their workload. According to Deloitte, 46% of Gen Z and 45% of millennial employees cite unmanageable workloads as the top source of burnout. A significant portion also agreed that their employers weren’t taking steps to prevent it.
McKinsey echoes these concerns—while 65% of employers feel that their support for employee mental health is above average, only half of employees agree. That disconnect is even higher between employers and frontline workers, with only 27% of frontline workers feeling content with mental health support at work.
But according to a recent Gallup study, almost a third of employees took advantage of paid time off for mental health issues when such an option was made available by employers. This shows a desire for dedicated paid time off for self-care purposes and the importance of taking time and space away from work to deal with waves of stress as they arise.
By offering mental health days, employers can send a clear message that employee wellbeing is prioritized just as highly as productivity, which has been proven to increase loyalty and job satisfaction among employees. Reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues and encouraging employees to prioritize their own mental health needs must be woven into any corporate wellness strategy to effectively bridge the workplace mental health divide.
Building a Case for Mental Health Days
Employers who prioritize mental health and well-being in the workplace improve the personal lives of their employees, leading to greater job performance, productivity, and engagement.
According to Gartner, when employers do more to support mental health, employees are more likely to perform at a higher level and exhibit higher levels of engagement. Leaders who support their employees in a more holistic way, involving all pillars of well-being, can also see a 21% increase in discretionary effort.
What’s even more significant is that these benchmarks easily translate to in-person, hybrid, and remote employees. However, while hybrid and remote employees report an overall decrease in burnout and higher engagement levels with increased mental health support, employers must also consider that these employees are more susceptible to the effects of “extreme autonomy,” which makes it difficult to “shut off” outside of business hours.
Providing mental health days and putting them on the same playing field as PTO for physical illnesses can help remote and hybrid employees recharge and take time to address their mental health needs, which can lead to strides in job performance, engagement, and morale.
How Employers Can Nurture Employee Mental Health
According to McKinsey, improving employee engagement, increasing access to mental health treatment, and reducing stigma around mental health are three key ingredients for building a comprehensive wellness strategy.
So how can employers better position themselves to meet the mental health needs of today’s employees?
- Equitably Prioritize Physical and Mental Health Benefits
- Destigmatize Mental Health in the Workplace
Employees who suffer from a behavioral health condition want uniformity between physical and mental health benefits—but getting help for the latter can be “incredibly challenging” according to a majority of workers.
McKinsey recommends the following steps to put physical and mental health support on the same playing field:
- Assessing insurance to include equal coverage for mental health as other health conditions
- Evaluating hiring procedures to ensure individuals who report behavioral mental health conditions receive equal consideration
Stigma around mental health is the greatest barrier preventing employees from seeking the support they need. Working toward a stigma-free workplace can help remove obstacles that get in the way of employees seeking assistance.
Eliminating discriminatory behavior through open and honest discussions about behavioral health conditions and substance abuse disorders can shift the perception of mental health in the workplace. Actively listening to and encouraging employees to seek help both normalizes and prioritizes mental health support for all.
Additionally, managers can play a crucial role in supporting their employees' mental health by checking in regularly, offering support and resources, and modeling healthy behaviors. By creating a supportive and inclusive culture around mental health, employers can not only improve the well-being of their employees but also boost productivity, retention rates, and overall business success.