Four Ways to Responsibly Address Mental Health in a Changing Workplace

Posted by Julie • January 18, 2022 • 5 min read

In the post-pandemic world, business is booming, but workers are stressed. While recent workplace shifts like remote arrangements are proving popular, such silver linings aren’t compensating for rising workloads and burnout. That’s because working from home often means nearly always working, blurring the lines between office and personal life. For example, in a recent study by Oracle, nearly 80 percent of respondents said that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, and even more agreed that job stress interferes with their personal lives. It’s a workplace mental health crisis that few organizations can afford to ignore. 

Recent data does suggest an evolution in business attitudes on mental wellbeing. The 2021 Arizona State University Survey of Employers found that nearly 80% of U.S.-based managers have elevated workforce mental health issues as a top priority. Polls of HR executives show even more concern, with 87% in a Verizon Media survey ranking mental health problems as the greatest impact on their workforces since 2020. But is growing awareness of mental health challenges translating into meaningful action?

The overall picture remains cloudy. According to the 2021 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey Report, nearly 40% of respondents felt that employers did not address their mental well-being during the pandemic, and over 60% of those employees did not feel comfortable bringing up their stress to management. Such hesitancy may result from diverging perspectives between rungs on the corporate ladder: a 2021 Modern Health survey shows that while 88% of the C-suite consider existing mental health initiatives to be adequate, only 66% of employees feel supported, and 28% believe their employer has failed them on this front. It’s no wonder that employees are quitting in droves

Why aren’t more companies addressing stress and burnout head on? Lack of experience and capacity for dealing with such sensitive matters is one likely explanation. Research from McKinsey found that employers don’t know how to address mental health stigma in the workplace. 75% of employers acknowledged that stigma exists but have done little to address it, ranking anti-stigma campaigns last among mental health priorities.

Yet, leadership may have valid reasons for such trepidation. Managers aren’t therapists; diving into discussions about mental health could easily cross into inappropriate personal areas. Bringing mental illness under managers’ scope risks two things: creating biases between the needs of employees and those of the business and doing more harm than good by offering advice without licensed expertise. Nobody will be better off if “work-life balance” comes to mean bringing private matters into office settings.

The need to respect boundaries does not, however, replace the responsibility to promote mental wellbeing. Here are four strategies for CEOs and HR leaders to support mental health while maintaining professionalism:

Starting at the top

Addressing mental health at the leadership level is essential. What does executive action look like? Initially driven by the pandemic, Fortune 500 companies like PepsiCo are creating a Chief Medical Officer position with remits that include mental health. This approach takes the pressure off of management to make judgment calls while signaling to employees that the company is serious about enacting long-term change. 

But not every company needs to expand the C-suite. Depending on the organization, effective approaches could include forming an inter-department mental health task force or overhauling mental health policies, as the Harvard Business Review recommends. The key is to ensure a direct channel to senior decision-makers for unbiased information on staff wellbeing. 

Bringing benefits up to date

HR should evaluate how well their benefits and policies fit today’s needs. A timely review of remote arrangements is a good place to start, followed by considering perks like more flexible PTO, covered psychological care, regularly scheduled “no email” hours, and health and fitness reimbursements. At a company level, anonymized surveys can help decision-makers match new programs to employee needs.

And if existing workers want more action on mental health, top-tier candidates will likely share those expectations. Of the 92% of employers surveyed by the Business Group on Health that are upgrading mental health programs, 40% are doing so primarily to attract and retain new talent. New benefits cited in the survey include mental health programs for dependent children and stress management programs. 

Helping employees help themselves

By providing access to dedicated mental health resources, management can help employees without overstepping boundaries. Leading organizations are granting free access to Employee Assistance Programs, which connect participants with confidential, professional help on-demand. Such programs eliminate the need for employees to disclose their conditions to management, a critical barrier in a world that still stigmatizes mental illness. 

Companies should also consider policies that directly address strain from COVID-19. In addition to issues like increasing hours, there are subtle ways the pandemic is changing the employee experience. For example, many are reticent to take sick days while off-site; 7 in 10 Americans in a recent poll admitted to working remotely while ill. To make it clear that employees can and should take time off, leadership can designate certain PTO as “wellness days” that can be used with no questions asked.

Spotting the signs

Not every employee who is struggling will seek help. Managers need to be trained to identify signs of common issues like exhaustion or depression, such as changes in communication styles or tardiness. But efforts shouldn’t be confined to those visibly suffering—even hyper-productivity can signal hidden distress or burnout. In fact, McKinsey’s research shows that 70 percent of those experiencing mental health stigma will end up missing days, typically because they hide their condition by overworking. 

Fortunately, managers can now turn to technology to facilitate these delicate tasks. Digital platforms for talent and task management empower leaders to make data-backed decisions, including using common metrics as proxies for mental strain, like tasks assigned per employee. Technology can also provide a portal for accessing assistance, and data shows that workers are open to these solutions—82% of those polled in Oracle’s study said they felt comfortable engaging with a robot for mental support because of perceived speed and objectivity. 

A new paradigm for employee wellbeing

Like much about work today, expectations and responsibilities around workplace mental health are in flux. For most organizations, finding the right approach will take determination, as dialogue on these evolving issues can be uncomfortable. Yet, there is far more to lose by staying silent. After more than a year of disruption, today’s workforce is looking for a new kind of leader to guide them through the uncertainties that still lie ahead. It’s time to disregard the outdated, stiff-upper-lip approach to employee wellbeing and embrace empathy and vulnerability as the new guiding principles. 


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