Understanding how a business can best support its employees’ mental health has evolved drastically in the past decades. Mental health is a growing workplace concern, with the related indirect impact to businesses estimated at $79 billion lost to poor productivity and absent employees. Despite the fact that over 200 million workdays are lost due to mental health conditions each year, mental health remains a taboo subject. In fact, almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status.
In a survey by Harvard Business Review, less than half of the respondents felt that mental health was prioritized at their company, and even fewer viewed their company leaders as advocates. This needs to change. Mental health is becoming the next frontier of diversity and inclusion, and employees want their companies to address it.
Eighty-six percent of the respondents thought that a company’s culture should support mental health. This percentage was even higher for Millennials and Gen Zers, who have higher turnover rates and are the largest demographic in the workforce. Half of Millennials and 75% of Gen Zers had left roles in the past for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily, compared with 34% of respondents overall — a finding that speaks to a generational shift in awareness. It is not surprising then that providing employees with the support they need improves not only engagement but also recruitment and retention, whereas doing nothing reinforces an outdated and damaging stigma.
A recent blog post on PhenomenalWriting.com states, “A recent survey from the global online employment platform, Monster, found that 69 percent of U.S employees experience burnout symptoms while working from home. With remote work life likely extending well into 2021, our return to “normal” will take longer than we’d all like. Researchers already warn that the long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health could inflict long-lasting emotional trauma and PTSD on an unprecedented global scale. As the adverse mental effects from coronavirus compound, employers need to address this issue head-on. If employers fail to acknowledge and support employee’s mental health, they risk losing productivity, professional relationships, and profits.”
The truth can be hard to hear sometimes. But it’s necessary for an organization to have a pulse on its employees’ feelings. People are at the core of companies and if they’re not happy, customers will notice. As a business leader or supervisor, you must take part in soliciting employee feedback – with an eye toward getting to the good, the bad and the ugly. Recognize giving professional feedback can be just as hard as hearing it. So, set your employees up for success by avoiding these missteps when asking for feedback. So, what exactly can employers do to improve this situation? Here are some ideas.
Offer Employee Benefits That Cover Mental Health Services
With more than 40 million Americans — one in six — living with a mental illness, virtually every company is impacted by some sort of mental health concern. As more companies become attuned to the needs and benefits of employee mental health, more benefits plans are including mental health services as an option for their employees. Managers should promote and discuss these employee assistance programs with their team members. Where companies have opportunity and resources, they should consider an onsite clinic with mental health counselors.
Talk About Mental Health
Tearing down stigmas is arguably the most important thing any manager can do to promote mental health. Leaders often encourage physical health with their teams, broadly letting people know it's okay to take care of illnesses and needs as they arise, and they should not be afraid to do the same with mental health.
Regular one-on-one meetings with employee-driven agendas are invaluable tools to that end. Rather than simply going through a checklist of projects, managers should encourage discussion of work-life balance and higher-level concerns. This will also let managers share personal experiences and strategies for managing stress and caring for mental health.
Create Opportunities for Employees to Destress
There is a persistent belief that time away from their desk or a work task is time wasted. Studies have found the opposite to be true: relaxing, re-centering and returning to tasks improves productivity. Leaders should encourage employees to take their earned vacation or paid time off (PTO) and create an environment where there is no guilt associated with requests for time off. In addition, managers could also consider organizing recreational team events and group service opportunities for employees to connect outside of the office environment. Volunteer time off (VTO) is another increasingly popular option that lets employees get away from work and give back to their communities in areas where they are interested and passionate.
Be an Example of Good Mental Health
Leaders often fall into the trap of encouraging one behavior and modeling something different. This is rarely more obvious than with stress relief and mental health. If a manager doesn't take advantage of well-being benefits and recreational opportunities, then their teams will not feel empowered to do so, either.
Managers need to set a good example of caring for their own mental health by taking mental health breaks during the day and unplugging after hours. When out of the office — including on vacation — they should stay away from email. Dashing off a handful of emails in the evenings may be convenient timing for the manager, but it sets an expectation for their teams. Before long, regardless of what may be preached in team meetings, everyone works at all hours.
The good news is that change is possible. It starts with acknowledging the equal prevalence of mental health conditions from the C-suite to the front lines, changing organizational culture, introducing proper training and support, and addressing mental health as a standalone DEI issue. CEOs must lead by example as both the priority and culture setters of their companies. That said, every employee has a role to play as well. Culture change of any kind requires top-down and bottom-up support. Mental health is no different.