We Need a Real Commitment to Mental Health at Work. Here's How (and Why). Employee mental health and wellbeing cannot be something that companies just pay lip service to without making real change. Awareness is only one part of the equation.
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There's quite a lot of dialogue about employees' mental health taking place now in the corporate world — the importance of prioritizing wellbeing, making work a safe place to be and shifting the expectation away from dangerous stress and burnout.
But how much is really changing?
While workplace discourse may be shifting to acknowledge the importance of employee mental health, many are just paying lip service to it. What we don't want – and what I sometimes fear – is that mental health awareness is becoming the latest trend without a real deep connection to how to support the workforce best. With a doctorate in psychology, more than 20 years of expertise as a psychologist, and 12 years as a coach and trainer, I am seeing firsthand little change in large organizations. Unfortunately, what continues is the negative impact on employees from working in environments where their mental wellbeing is not a priority.
Yet it's desperately needed. Seven in 10 people globally are struggling with mental health issues, and there's a trillion dollars' worth of lost productivity due to anxiety and depression in the global economy.
In 2023, the Workforce Institute at UKG surveyed 3,400 people across 10 countries and found that two-thirds of employees would accept reduced pay for a job that better supports their mental health. They found that managers impact employees' mental health (69%) more than doctors (51%) and spouses (69%). Even the 2022 Gallup State of the Global Workplace survey data found that 60% of people are emotionally detached at work – with 19% saying they're "miserable" and 44% experiencing stress "a lot." Interestingly, they found that employees who are "engaged but not thriving" have a 61% higher likelihood of ongoing burnout than those who are "engaged and thriving."
Supervisors micromanaging their employees' workday is a crucial issue impacting employees' mental health. Having someone sit at your shoulder all the time and not trusting you to execute your tasks causes increased stress and anxiety for people – yet in the U.S., a study in 2020 revealed 64% of employees felt micromanaged. As leaders, developing a trusting relationship with your employees is essential. Employees and their managers will never establish a culture of trust if micromanaging is taking place.
Something needs to change.
We already know that a mentally and emotionally healthy workforce is essential for a company's success and long-term sustainability. Focusing on wellbeing fosters a positive work environment, improving productivity and reducing absenteeism. And when employees feel valued, they're more likely to remain with the company longer. We know that high employee retention rates contribute to lower recruitment and training costs and a more experienced and cohesive team. It's a no-brainer: we need a "people-first" culture.
So, how do we make the workplace a safe place for people to get the support they need?
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The importance of workplace culture
Having a people-first workplace culture focused on flexibility, wellbeing and support is one that does not prioritize working their employees to exhaustion and burnout.
Many companies say they're committed to supporting mental health in the workplace, yet that's not what they're modeling. Instead, they're modeling working 60 hours a week and seemingly expecting that if management adds ten items to your to-do list, you must prioritize every single one, immediately. Many employees won't say no because they fear getting fired. There needs to be alignment between what companies say they will do and what they are actually doing.
How can leaders and their organizations make meaningful change, and what does that look like?
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1. Ensure wellbeing is an integrated part of company culture
Wellbeing and mental health are ongoing areas that must remain priorities. How do companies show employees they care? Mental health support should be part of an ongoing, ever-evolving commitment in the workplace that develops and adapts to the evolving needs of the employees.
What policies do you have in place as a leadership team? How does the culture encourage wellbeing right now? What needs changing, what needs supporting and what needs to stop? Don't think of wellbeing inclusion as a "quick fix." Assess your current policies and discuss how they may need to be improved.
Creating a Mental Health at Work Charter is one way to solidify your organization's commitment. Tailor it to align with the business model, and it will serve as a roadmap to achieve better mental health outcomes for employees. Try starting with what you plan to do each year – and don't forget to include time to reevaluate and gather feedback from employees on what they believe the company can do to support them.
One option might be to communicate that mental health sick days are valid in your company. Taking a mental health day when things seem too much could mean an employee avoids burnout. Some companies in the U.S. offer once-a-month "self-care days" to their staff, which doesn't come out of their vacation allowance, but gives employees an extra "free" day off to take time out for themselves.
Another option may be assessing your flexible working policy. Since the pandemic began, companies now proudly display their "hybrid" policies on job advertisements — but requiring people to come into the office four days a week on specific days, with one day from home, isn't true flexibility. What is your policy, and does it really support people's needs?
2. Seek to understand the needs of your employees
Employees with diagnosed mental health or neurodivergent conditions often fear discrimination or bias or are concerned about stigma. To create a safe and inclusive environment, organizations should provide training and education on mental health and neurodiversity for managers and leaders, and ensure policies and practices are in place to prevent discrimination and bias. Managing a diverse workforce well involves learning about these differences and how they impact interpersonal relationships, communication, productivity and wellbeing.
Support can come in many forms, but what is it that your workforce needs? This is best decided by speaking directly to your employees or doing a staff survey, to explore which parts of the culture are seen as conducive to mental wellbeing and what needs improving.
Companies could also use mental health ambassadors to create focus groups around what they believe the company can or could do to improve its commitment. Once you have a working group, you could set up monthly workshops on different themes: belonging, inclusivity, mental health days and burnout. It'll bring people together and gather honest feedback.
3. Lead by example
Modeling healthy behaviors is a crucial step in prioritizing mental wellbeing at work. Many employees may be told they don't need to work late or answer emails on the weekend – but if they see their manager doing so, they take that as a hint that it's the best way to be at work. It's no good saying you support mental wellbeing and a healthy work-life balance if you don't model it. But by doing so, your staff will feel it's acceptable to prioritize self-care and set boundaries.
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Don't worry so much about improving your team's mental health that you forget about your own. Let them know if you're leaving early to get some much-needed downtime. Remind them that you go for a walk in the middle of the day to gain some clarity (plus exercise and fresh air), or let them know when you're entirely switching off your emails and laptop in the evenings and for your vacation.
4. Create a culture of connection
An excellent way to commit to an ongoing conversation about mental health in the workplace is to build and nurture a culture of connection through check-ins. You may already have one-to-ones with your employees — but how are these usually structured? Perhaps an update on their weekly tasks, deadlines and ideas for the future?
Consider making mental health a part of these meetings. A study between Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics in 2020 found that 41% of employees wanted their manager to ask them about their mental health and wellbeing. Of course, your job isn't to be their counselor, but you can listen, learn, and identify if additional support is needed.
A simple "How are you really doing?" or "What concerns do you have about work or outside work?" Let them know they can come to you if they have any worries or stressors, and you can work together to address their concerns.
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As always, an investment in mental health — like any investment into a company's culture — takes time. But it also requires the whole company's deep commitment and belief that it's needed. By investing in the wellbeing of their workforce, businesses benefit in many ways, ensuring long-term success in an increasingly competitive market.