Just a few years ago, the key focus of employee experience was on physical wellness. Employers sought to encourage physically healthy behaviors and discourage lifestyles that would lead to ill health. Now, that focus is widening, incorporating a more holistic understanding of employee ‘well-being’, including their physical, social, financial, community, and mental health. This is all with the aim of helping people live longer, live happier, and be more productive at work.
In the wake of the pandemic and widespread political unrest, mental health in the workplace has become even more of a focus area for employers. From addressing stigma and forging links to the diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) program, mental health has gone from a ‘nice to have’ to a critical success factor.
In response, employers are prioritizing further mental health improvements to working practices, such as ‘mental health days’, celebrating a mental health month, the four-day work week, and investments in a better employee assistance program, counseling, and CBT-based apps. These are steps in the right direction, but not enough to create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces – that requires real culture change. Using the language of health and ‘well-being’ is important, but mental health at work is about more than talking the talk: employers need to walk the walk.
The employee mental health experience
Mental health problems in the workforce continue to grow, particularly among younger and historically underrepresented workers according to statistics from Mind Share Partners. Other key findings include an increase in attrition, with 50% of respondents having left companies for mental health reasons caused by factors such as unsustainable workloads. Some 91% of workers now believe that their employer should proactively support mental health at work – showing just how important this is to an employee’s perception of their workplace.
The same study also found that 76% of workers reported one or more mental health issues in the last year (up from 59% in 2019). The data highlights that mental health conditions affect people at all levels of seniority, with c-suite members and executives now more likely than the rest of the workforce to report at least one mental health symptom.
The good news? More employees than ever are talking about mental health at work. Nearly two-thirds of respondents have spoken to someone at work about their mental health in the last year – a positive sign that stigma-reducing efforts may be working (which in turn affects willingness to seek treatment). However, less than half of respondents said that their experiences when sharing about mental health at work were positive, or that they received a supportive response.
Younger workers (particularly, Millennials and Gen Z), alongside underrepresented groups (including LGBTQ+, Black and Latinx) were also all more likely to experience mental health challenges, or leave a workplace for mental health reasons. Just over half of all respondents surveyed said that mental health is a workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issue, which is in itself a cultural challenge companies need to address.
The link between workplace mental health and the employee experience
Our recent survey highlights that 90% of respondents identify a link between digital employee experience (DEX) and workplace happiness. With employees expecting more from employers in terms of mental health support, it’s time for organizations to build truly effective employee experience strategies.
And there are many factors that can impact employee mental well-being we need to be mindful of, from financial stability, to work-life balance, and even team communication and support.
Research by healthcare provider Optum found that financial health is a critical factor, with a jump in the number of workers reporting better well-being at $50,000 – and even more so for earnings above $100,000. Flexibility and job autonomy were also identified as important workplace factors, with working from home in particular contributing to higher levels of self-reported well-being.
Employees are increasingly unwilling to compromise their health for work, preferring in some cases to change their workplace for a better work-life balance. Until recently, employers focused on managing workers with existing mental illness diagnoses and reducing the related stigma. Now, employers need to focus on work’s effect on everybody’s mental health and well-being.
Other workplace factors affecting employee mental health include poor management and communication, and a lack of connection or support from immediate teams — particularly for those now working remotely. The pandemic has also exacerbated a culture of workaholism, leading to a reported 77% of employees experiencing burnout.
Optum’s research highlights that some companies have made progress in effecting real, meaningful culture change: 54% of respondents believe that their mental health is prioritized at their place of work (up from 41% in 2019) and 47% say their manager is equipped to best support them if they experience mental illness. However, despite signs of positive progress, the study also identified some declines. Since 2019, 5% less respondents feel comfortable in supporting a coworker with their mental health, and the number of respondents who know how to access the right support and services at work has fallen.
What employers can offer to promote mental health
Employers need to start thinking about the bigger picture. Mental health is not an individual challenge, it’s a collective priority. Therefore it’s no longer sufficient to see mental health in isolation, or to consider it enough to simply give employees assistance resources and leave them to it. Instead, employers should promote mental health through a range of strategies.
1. Sustainable working practices
Gone are the days of nine to five. Employers must prioritize flexibility in their job offering, which is now seen as the norm in many industries thanks to the rise in remote working. Efforts to return employees to the office full time are having a negative impact on mental health. In a HBR study, 37% of workers said the lack of work-life balance and flexible policies was affecting their mental health.
Setting clear expectations about responsiveness and workloads, creating autonomy, and establishing work-life boundaries helps to enable a mental health-positive workplace. Where jobs have a necessary element of stress, employers should look at other aspects of the role that can be made more flexible or mitigated. For instance, no-meeting days, banning or limiting emails outside of work hours, and setting aside focused work time can all create effective boundaries. Critically, leaders must model the same behaviors for new policies to become effective. Holding mental health-positive meetings with direct reports to understand different working styles can also improve inclusion. They must strike a careful balance between practical resources and workloads, and the mental health of their people.
2. Culture change
It’s not enough to increase access to employee resources as a one-off measure. Leaders must embed mental health in company culture, conducting regular pulse surveys and building in accountability from the top-down. To improve disclosure and transparency, leaders could share their own personal experiences of mental health if they feel comfortable.
Then there’s training. Organizational learning on navigating mental health at work, holding space for difficult conversations, and providing active support are key. Managers are often the first to spot an employee in distress, so building a culture of psychological safety, where disclosure and support is encouraged and made the norm is crucial – alongside thorough policies, mental health benefits and resources.
It’s also essential to invest in DEI and intersectionality to reduce stress and better support the well-being of all employees. Black and AAPI employees are often affected by political unrest, violence, and systemic racism, for example. Family caregivers among the workforce, including mothers, have had to deal with school closures and burnout. As well as policies and practices initiated by employers, employees should feel empowered and have the resources to create their own mental health employee resource groups (ERGs), affinity groups, mental health champion schemes, or peer listening workshops.
A culture where employees are encouraged to create meaningful connections is key.
What employees want to see
Employees want to see more holistic support for their well-being in the workplace. According to the Optum study, one in three workers would like to see more support from their employer on financial health, with just under one in three also asking for more help with mental health and stress. Of those who said they would welcome financial health services, 34% wanted help with prescriptions, healthcare and insurance, and 26% wanted support on housing.
Although most employers offer counseling and employee assistance resources, more than a quarter of employees surveyed said they wanted to see expanded services. Two in five employers offer targeted substance disorder and stress reduction programs, but the survey also revealed a disconnect between employee needs and what’s currently on offer in most companies.
In the same study, 40% reported having access to good quality mental health resources, 40% said they were well supported in managing stress, and 24% felt efforts to combat stigma around mental health were successful at their organization. Just 21% received mindfulness programs, 20% had resiliency support, 19% had access to resources for stress and burn-out, 17% said there was a specific provision for caregivers, and just 15% had support or a view on sleep health.
Of those who didn’t have access to various support services, two in five employees wanted specific help with work-related stress and burn-out, and more than a quarter wanted sleep support.
To attract and retain the best talent in a post-pandemic world, the challenge for employers is to:
- Address and make provisions for their employees as individuals with different dimensions of behavioral health and well-being – particularly mental (including common conditions like stress and depression), and financial health
- Engage top-down and bottom-up in cultivating a culture that encourages positive conversations around mental health, reducing stigma, and facilitating disclosure
- Carefully consider the intersectionality of workplace mental health, including employee measures that empower traditionally underrepresented groups
Want to learn more about why a good employee experience matters? Check out this blog about the true cost of a bad employee experience!