Prioritizing workplace mental health

Employee emotional well-being has taken a major hit over the past 19 months, but employers can take steps to improve things.
Workerburnout Panel

Mental health doesn’t take a day off, so while last week was officially recognized as Mental Health Awareness Week, conversations about mental health in the workplace are always pertinent.

According to a survey from Gallagher, an insurance and risk management consulting firm, in comparison to when the COVID-19 pandemic started, 39% of employers have indicated a decline in employee emotional well-being. Mental health has never been more important in the workplace, as 65% of employers ranked emotional well-being as the top-rated benefit being considered for their total rewards plans.

If the pandemic has a silver lining, it’s the fact that it has further opened the conversation about mental health and highlighted the urgent need for increased mental health benefits. Data on industry trends suggests that demand for mental health benefits will continue to grow in the coming years. This is a result of employers investing more in mental health than they have in past years, matching employees’ desire for mental health support provided from their employers.

Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression — one of the leading causes of disability — with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

Unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for mental health problems, while returning to, or getting work is protective. A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism, and lost productivity, notes WHO. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and benefit from associated economic gains.

There are many risk factors for mental health that may be present in the working environment. Most risks relate to interactions between type of work, the organizational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to carry out their work. For example, a person may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organizational practices.

Risks to mental health include:

  • Inadequate health and safety policies;
  • Poor communication and management practices;
  • Limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;
  • Low levels of support for employees;
  • Inflexible working hours; and
  • Unclear tasks or organizational objectives.

Risks may also be related to job content, such as unsuitable tasks for the person’s competencies or a high and unrelenting workload. Some jobs may carry a higher personal risk than others (e.g., first responders and humanitarian workers), which can have an impact on mental health and be a cause of symptoms of mental disorders or lead to harmful use of alcohol or psychoactive drugs. Risk may be increased in situations where there is a lack of team cohesion or social support.

Bullying and psychological harassment (also known as “mobbing”) are commonly reported causes of work-related stress by workers and present risks to the health of workers, according to WHO. They are associated with both psychological and physical problems. These health consequences can have costs for employers in terms of reduced productivity and increased staff turnover. They can also have a negative impact on family and social interactions.

Available cost-benefit research on strategies to address mental health points toward net benefits. For example, a WHO-led study estimated that for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

Emily Brainerd, practice leader for Gallagher’s Wellbeing Consulting Practice, offers three tips for strengthening workforce emotional well-being.

Increase mental health awareness

In order for employees to ask for help in the first place, it is imperative they have access to mental health awareness and educational resources, says Brainerd.

“Employees who truly feel supported by their organization are more empowered to seek the care they need. A critical component of building this trust includes training for all people managers, as direct managers are often the first point of contact for an employee. Supervisors play a key role in creating a psychologically safe work environment. Managers and organizational leaders need the emotional skills to be able to respond supportively to an employee in need and assist that employee in navigating available resources. This may also mean managers and leaders themselves need emotional well-being support first, as they are struggling with the same challenges facing their team members.

Promote access to resources

Employers need to make sure there are resources in place for employees to get treatment and manage mental health conditions, Brainerd advises. These resources should span a broad range, from including access for emergency support around substance misuse or suicide, to preventive care tools such as mindfulness exercises and stress management strategies to build resiliency.

“Organizations should also consider how they could positively affect stressors to lessen common employee burdens. These could include programs to help with financial stress or caregiving responsibilities, or even concierge-type or convenience-related services such as healthy food delivery. Within the workplace, this may look like creating flexible schedules, strengthening manager/employee communication channels, increasing recognition opportunities, and encouraging the use of paid time off.

“Communication is crucial,” continues Brainerd. “An effective employee communications strategy can help employees know what is available, when to use which resource, and how to easily access tools. Technology platforms such as intranets and benefit hubs can be a central location to house this information. Employers can also coordinate information and links from health plans, employee assistance programs, and third-party providers on the same platform to point employees to additional resources.”

Take personal action

Taking time to think about and act on your personal mental health — no matter where you are in your journey — is imperative, says Brainerd. If you are a manager, it is important employees see you taking care of your own mental health and emotional well-being. As mentioned above, direct supervisors must first be supported themselves if they are to effectively support their teams.

Resources such as those on Right Direction, as well as the below ideas, are a great place to start for leaders looking to both practice self-care and promote the importance of self-care to employees, according to Brainerd:

Ideas for community care

  • Reach out to a friend in need;
  • Complete random acts of kindness;
  • Donate to mental health organizations; and
  • Read and share articles and host a sharing event.

Ideas for self-care

  • Start the day with gratitude;
  • Have a little fun, let yourself laugh;
  • Sleep in and lay in bed until noon;
  • Reduce your screen time;
  • Be physically active throughout the day;
  • Savor a delicious meal; and
  • End the day with gratitude.

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