Mental health struggles have historically been treated as taboo subjects, even among our families and closest friends. Even as recently as 2018, The Ad Council felt it imperative to launch a PSA to encourage friends to talk with friends when they realize they may be internally struggling. The Seize the Awkward campaign served as a great reminder to reach out to those around us because someone may very well need help.
Similar to family dynamics, in the workforce, we have also been conditioned that personal struggles are precisely that – personal and not something to be discussed or concerned about in the workplace. However, we are slowly starting to realize that it’s unavoidable that struggles with mental well-being will manifest in the workplace; after all, we work with a whole person each day, not just compartmentalized personalities suited for work or home. Organizations are beginning to take those necessary steps to foster a supportive environment for their teams, as it’s not only good for positive business outcomes but also good for positive human outcomes.
What is the current state of mental health in our workforce?
It’s no secret that the strain on our mental health grew extensively since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early March 2020. But prior to the continued COVID challenges, U.S workers were feeling that strain already. Top researchers at Gallup noted “rates of daily stress, worry, sadness, and anger have been trending upward for American workers since 2009.” In comes 2020, and stress escalated overnight. In fact, Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report claims, “some 57% of U.S. and Canadian workers reported feeling stress daily, up by eight percentage points from the year prior.”
To compound the stress and worker burnout, as we dissect the reasons behind what has been dubbed as the Great Resignation, we can’t discount the role of mental health decline in our workforce as a root cause for ensuing labor shortages and talent deficits. By 2021, “two-thirds of millennials who left their jobs [in 2021] cited mental health as the driver behind their departure, according to a Mind Share Partners survey. The proportion for Gen Z was even higher at 81%.”
In another study by McKinsey, “nearly 15% of unemployed people blamed their lack of work on mental health problems.”
What’s been the employer’s reaction to climbing mental health issues among employees?
While recent years ushered in the notion that employers should contribute to employee health beyond the traditional (and in many instances, legally required) medical health plan, it was focused primarily on the physiological aspect of worker health. We saw the addition of facility gyms, health club memberships, in-house medical staff, and even office challenges through apps and events organized around physical activity and competition. We checked heart rates and cholesterol, screened for diabetes, and encouraged improvements through exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle changes.
Yet, mental health was not a priority in the equation. The stigma surrounding the admission and discussion of mental struggles both professionally and personally continues to be prevalent, despite the evidence that our struggles are worsening and very much affecting the overall health of our workforce.
Thankfully, though, mindsets are changing, and organizations realize that for the good of the people around them, and ultimately the solvency of their business in the long haul, the extension of mental health provisions in any health plan is urgent. And it’s not just within health plans, but also as a concern to be addressed culturally as well.
There is good news when 86 percent of employers say mental health, stress, and burnout were still a priority. (Willis Thompson Towers study). The challenge is that only 40% of employers have updated their health policies to expand mental health services, according to the Kaiser foundation.
It’s a promising start, but more needs to be done.
How should employers focus on improving their support of their employee’s mental health?
Most studies agree on certain key foundations for creating and sustaining mental health support in the workplace. These include:
- Enhancing medical health plans to include mental health services, particularly through expanding access to mental health professionals. Further, organizations can’t always leave this up to employees to know where to find help. Much like a school offers counselors, organizations should ensure management and leaders have readily available resources to share with employees.
- Training should be extended to managers to help them better support their team members and direct reports professionally and personally. This includes training on recognizing signs of struggle, understanding cues, opening lines of communication, and pointing employees in the right direction towards help.
- Remove the stigma on needing time off for stress-related issues, not just physical concerns. Needing a mental health day is real, yet many workers may not opt to take them for fear of their managers’ and peers’ perception of performance decline. Creating a flexible work environment that allows for built-in breaks, time slots for therapy appointments, and time off to recharge should be established as the norm.
- Create opportunities for connection for employees with management and peers. Leadership needs to set the stage and understand that today’s workers expect employers to bear some responsibility for their well-being. We spend the majority of our adult life at work, and it is by far one of the most important elements that define us. It’s no longer a means to an end or a paycheck but a significant part of who we are and affects how we grow. Not to mention, work provides the majority of our daily human interactions, so companies must focus on nurturing a culture that makes those interactions respectful and meaningful. Recognizing an employee on a personal level for what they may be challenged with and simply asking “how are you?” can help.
We’ve often been told to keep our personal problems out of the office. And yes, to a great degree, that is sound advice. But discerning temporary problems from actual struggles that need attention is essential. We hear from companies that their “people” are their most important assets. If that’s indeed the case, then why don’t we treat them that way when they need help, especially when it comes to mental health well-being? We are starting to see the needle move positively towards actively addressing the growing concern of mental health struggles in our workforce. Let’s continue to push it further.
At SSi, our clients see the importance of building a supportive work culture for employees. We recognize that talent expectation is to have a meaningful work experience where they can perform to the best of their abilities. Contact us today to find the right opportunity.