Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2022, and has been updated to reflect the current climate and most recent mental wellness research and mental health resources.
It's Mental Health Awareness Month 2023. But if you're looking for answers to a Google search on "how to support employee mental health this month", that’s not what you’ll find here.
What you will find are strategies to provide real, sustained mental health support to employees. Employees who are stretched thin at work. Who are doom scrolling through one potentially life altering moment after another. Who are attempting to show up for their loved ones who lean on them for support. Because your people need support now and they'll need it a year from now and on and on.
Of course, individual employees aren’t the only ones that need support—we all need support: especially HR leaders, managers, executives. Most of us are navigating life stressors along with the continued expectations to meet deadlines, to go above and beyond company goals, and to be creative and agile with pressures from leadership.
The fact is: People’s mental health struggles are very real right now, but so many work environments make it difficult to be open about it. When we polled our community on LinkedIn with a mental health check pulse survey, nearly half of respondents said they didn’t feel encouraged to have conversations about their wellbeing at work.
Just as worrisome: too many work environments don’t offer mental health support even at a time when people need it the most. The responses to an HR Brew snap poll mirror (and validate) the majority response (47%) to our LinkedIn pulse survey: that real conversations about mental health are not happening in our work lives. When asked if “they’ve attempted to address burnout by giving all employees the day off,” 43% of HR Brew readers said they never would. Yikes.
Fortunately, there's an opportunity for organizations that claim to be people-first to really put people first. To offer mental health support that creates safer, nourishing workplaces. You can start by taking 13 minutes to read about how your people are doing right now and get steps forward for real action.
What is the current state of employee mental health?
The current state of employee mental health in a nutshell? Things are heavy right now. A 2023 Headspace Health report found that a staggering 87% of employees say they “feel a sense of dread at least once a month,” while 49% report experiencing these feelings at least once a week.
Three years on from the start of a global pandemic, we're all still navigating what feels like one crisis after another and all of us are impacted. Recent findings from The Harris Poll show that more than 2 in 3 employees in the U.S. say thinking about current global events has a negative impact on their mental health. On top of that, half of employees in the U.S. say this has a negative impact on their work performance.
More than 3 in 4 employees in the U.S. say they think about current global events several times a week or more and over half do so once a day or more.
More than 1 in 10 employees in the U.S. say thinking about current global events has a major negative impact on their mental health.
When you factor in being a parent to a child under 18, these employees are more likely than others to say thinking about current global events has a negative impact on their mental health and their work performance.
Get the complete report on how supporting employee mental health impacts work performance.
Beyond the data, it's clear in casual conversation, social media threads, and communities everywhere that people are having a hard time. And work shouldn’t, but sadly is, contributing to these ongoing challenges: A recent Society of Human Resources (SHRM) research study discovered that 1 in 3 U.S. employees report their job has had a negative impact on their mental health over the past six months.
And while much of the heaviness that is upending entire lives isn't new, many companies are just entering the mental health conversation. Which means most employees have experienced not feeling heard for a very long time.
Now's the time to move beyond "Mental Health Awareness Month" and invest in supporting employees' mental health year-round. Keep reading for why providing ongoing mental health support is the way forward.
Why employee mental health must be a priority for organizational leaders in 2023 and beyond mental health awareness month.
Only 29% of employees in the U.S. say that their employer has increased their mental health benefits (e.g., additional time off, therapy/counseling benefits) due to the potential stress related to current global events.
40% say their mental health benefits have remained the same.
Sadly, 31% say their employer does not offer any benefits for their mental health.
What the Harris Poll employee mental health data reveals: The majority of employees are in distress these days but the majority of companies likely aren’t doing enough to support people.
It’s true that investing in employee wellbeing and mental health support requires intention, time, and money, but that investment leads to workplaces that power people and business objectives. Here's what investment in employee mental health can achieve:
Increased overall employee health.
The link between mental health and physical health is tight. According to the CDC, for example, if one of your employees experiences depression, they’re also at an increased risk for long-lasting physical health problems like heart disease and stroke.
When mental health suffers, physical health suffers and the effect deepens, limiting an employee's ability to show up to work in their fullness. When employees are supported, they’re more able to bring thoughtfulness and creativity to their work because they're thriving (instead of trying to survive).
Increased ability to bring energy to work.
People are so much more than how productive they can be. We’ve written about why a human approach to productivity at work is long overdue, and requires a shift in focus—from employee outputs to the wellbeing, happiness, and engagement of the employees themselves.
A major theme surfaced in that reframing productivity conversation: the impact of workplace culture on our personal lives, and the responsibility that employers have to support employees with policies, guidance, and tools to set them up for success. Likewise, when it comes to employee mental healthcare, it takes more than individual self-care to truly address mental wellbeing.
According to IBM’s employee experience report, employees who experience a sense of belonging, purpose, achievement, happiness, and vigor are more likely to perform at higher levels and contribute ‘above and beyond’ expectations.
Supporting your people’s mental health means acknowledging their realities and empowering them with tools to actually show up to work with more energy.
Better employee retention.
The same IBM study also found that employees with the highest experience index scores stayed longer than those on the lower end of the index. What does this mean? Employees who are having a great experience at work—meaning they feel appreciated, supported, and cared for in all aspects of their wellbeing—are much less likely to look for work elsewhere.
A recent survey we conducted of employed adults in the U.S. reveals that 2 in 3 (67%) say they don’t always feel appreciated for their contributions at work—which means there’s major opportunity for organizations that prioritize employee appreciation to impact employee wellbeing and mental health.
(Earlier this year, we predicted that taking care of the people who stay at your company is one of the top “need to haves” for HR teams and People leaders in 2023 and we continue to see this validated!)
When you feel like your needs matter and that you’re being supported, it’s so much easier to then feel connected and rooted wherever you are—to feel connected at work and elsewhere.
On the other end, what does it look like if companies don’t support their people’s mental health?
What are the consequences if companies don't support employee mental health?
Right now, more than half of employees in the U.S.believe that their employer is not doing enough to support their mental health with the potential stress related to current global events.
Continuing on with the status quo of not meeting employee mental health needs isn’t going over well for employees or organizations with two key, and undesirable, outcomes:
1. Less “productivity” and more stress.
Over 40% of employees in the U.S.say their motivation to do their job is heavily impacted by current global events. But employees are very clear that dedicated wellbeing support is a must-have. A study by Gympass on the ROI of workplace investments in wellbeing found 83% of employees ranked employer-driven wellbeing offerings as high in importance as their salary.
When a person is burnt out, lonely, grieving, and dealing with stressors that weigh on their mental health, they can’t perform at work. They could be the brightest, most talented, most engaged employee when they’re healthy, but without mental health support, you’re likely seeing a small fraction of what they can really do.
Gen Z and 2023 college graduates are a testament to the critical role mental health—and adequate resources—play in feeling like you can succeed in the workforce. HR Dive reports that a survey of 2023 college grads say the pandemic impacted their mental health so significantly that they feel less prepared to enter the workforce.
Of course, the need for consistent mental health and wellbeing support is not relegated to a single generation. But, for incoming applicants from this new generation, workplaces should be prepared to hear about how mental health support is a necessity and be ready to meet them with programs and offerings.
2. Higher employee turnover.
Whether in work or in life, if you’re not feeling valued or supported, it’s hard to convince yourself to stay in that situation. It’s hard to be your best self in that situation.
Gallup reports that organizations that score in the top 25% on employee experience have 18 to 43% less turnover than the bottom quarter. Feeling fully supported and valued at work both factor into overall employee experience. Employees can’t feel good about their work experience if their mental wellbeing isn’t being considered.
While many companies continue to prioritize profit over people, there are forward-thinking companies that are striving to truly be people-first, to prioritize caring for the whole person. And these companies will win the race to attract and retain top talent.
Case in point: PwC recently invested $2.4 billion into their people’s wellbeing, which includes doubling the number of free visits with a mental health professional and reimbursement for those professionals out-of-network. This matters. This is year-round support that tells employees, “we put our people first.”
And you can bet they’re seeing an uptick in applicants fleeing organizations where they don’t have support.
5 ways to invest in employee mental health year round.
1. Create a psychologically safe space where everyone can show up authentically.
Psychological safety at work is essential before you can begin to have authentic conversations about mental health.
Imagine you’re at a company where you’re culturally underrepresented and there are little to no attempts at making the space more inclusive. This is the reality for far too many people and it leads to feelings of isolation, which can have a major negative effect on a person’s mental health.
How leaders can nurture psychological safety at work in 6 small and large ways:
Make psychological safety a part of your company values. Then, like any other company value, model the behavior and empower managers and teams to embed those values into their daily work life.
Train managers in trauma and inclusion. Trauma-informed care is crucial as a people manager, too. Invest in professional training that gives managers the skills to approach their people like real people who are most likely dealing with trauma in some form.
Give employees a seamless way to alert your team when harm is being caused. It can be uncomfortable to flag concerns, so having a structured and confidential way to do so makes it more likely that they will.
Show employees your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Show them—don’t just tell them—they’re safe here.
Employ more inclusive language, both internally and externally, so everyone — candidates, your people, customers — feels seen and heard here. (Great example: Are you looking for a “culture fit,” which implies you want candidates that look like your current employees? Or a “culture add,” which implies you want to expand your talent in diverse ways.)
Explore tools that will support company-wide accountability and long-term impact. Organizations can make promises, but follow-through is most important. What tools can you use to make sure commitments actually lead to action? Tools that can fill an inclusion gap? Communication tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow spaces for conversation and connection around heavy topics. At Blueboard, ERGs (employee resource groups) use dedicated Slack channels that create safe spaces for real discussions.
2. Listen to your people and understand their needs.
Addressing every individual employee’s needs and providing customized resources can seem like an impossible task—especially for People teams with limited resources. But listening to your people is a great place to start, whether that’s through formal channels (e.g. engagement surveys, 1:1s) or informal channels.
You never know what could make a meaningful, positive difference for someone in their day. A seemingly subtle gesture, like fresh flowers on an employee’s desk (at their home office or otherwise!), for example, can go a long way. Beyond serving an aesthetic or decorative function, a bright floral display can enhance a person’s experience at work in ways that last and provide real support.
Fresh flowers are the kind of experience that Nate Shalev, a LinkedIn Top Voice, keynote speaker, and strategic advisor credits with providing crucial support for their mental health at work:
“Whenever I could, I would get flowers for my open office desk. I love flowers. They are a small delight that brings me great joy. Plus, they served as a buffer between me and whoever wanted to ‘just stop by’. We all have different ways that make us light up. That make us feel valued and appreciated.”
But how do you encourage employees to share? Try asking:
What motivates you to come to work each day?
How’s life outside of work?
How’s your work/life balance lately?
What did you get up to this weekend?
Do you feel supported right now?
Do you feel confident here?
If you’re already actively gathering employee input on mental health, ask: Are we actually absorbing what employees are sharing and are we following listening with action?
For companies that offer comprehensive mental health services and support, continue to ask: Are these the right fit for my people? Gartner recently found that while 87% of employees have access to mental health offerings, less than 23% use them. This tells us that existing mental health programs may not be solving the problems employees need them to solve, or they may not be communicated actively or prioritized enough internally—or both.
It's important to continue to listen to your people and ask for feedback even after you've rolled out a mental health support program to make sure it's having the desired employee impact.
3. Empower managers to have inclusive conversations about mental health.
Equip managers to regularly check in with their people, and give their people the space to bring their mental health to the table. This includes training managers to be a source of safety.
Consider setting managers up to be a source of empowerment and safety among employees by:
Implementing required bias trainings, with opportunities for follow up
Creating shared spaces for managers, where managers can connect with each other and provide ideas and feedback on relevant topics
Providing spaces for employees to feel empowered to give manager feedback
In the video below, we asked some of our own leaders and managers at Blueboard, "How do you encourage conversations around mental health at work?"
4. Encourage employees to unplug, rest, and recharge.
Even though so much of what we do at work is focused on growth and getting things done, we also have to understand the role rest plays in growth. Rest allows us to recover from all of the effort we put forth into the world.
It’s not sustainable for you or your people to work continuously without any real time to step away and recharge. It’s needed for our mental and physical health. And, ultimately, rest plays an important part in keeping employees longer.
Empowering your people to unplug from work may include:
Implementing company holidays where rest is the only goal. Companies often add breaks in times where no federal holidays exist. At Blueboard, employees are encouraged to take a paid mental health day during the month of May, and to prioritize taking time off to restore outside of that when they need to.
Offering a bonus for a minimum amount of PTO taken. Demonstrate that yours is a pro-PTO workplace where time off is taken regularly and team members feel comfortable supporting existing workload.
Best practice tip: Set employees up for success to truly unplug and provide some guidance around how to best prepare to take PTO. Leadership and managers should model these PTO best practices to set a healthy precedent, particularly for direct reports. If you advocate for silencing notifications and setting OOO auto responses—but reply to work emails from your iPhone and emoji react in Slack while you’re supposed to “out of office”—employees might think they need to be as available when they go to take time off, which can defeat the purpose.
Rewarding employees with opportunities to recharge. When recognizing employees for their hard work, further emphasize that their rest is important with rewards that allow them to try new things, explore their passions, and connect with the people they love in the ways most meaningful to them.
These are just a few examples. Regardless of the how, rest must be a priority. Of course, it’s not always easy to find balance in work and life, or to set boundaries that create more balance. But setting boundaries allows us to take care of ourselves and avoid exhaustion that quickly becomes burnout.
Understand and define why they need to set boundaries,
Challenge the shame or guilt around setting boundaries at work,
Show peers the importance of setting boundaries
5. Stay focused on impact.
Finally, stay focused on employee impact. Committing to investing in employee mental health is important, but you’ll need to understand if your organization’s mental health initiatives are having the intended impact. Again, listen to your people.
Dedicated internal communication channels give employees safe spaces to ask questions about any new initiatives, and how they’re really feeling about them.
Regular employee engagement surveys can reveal progress and general feedback on mental health initiatives. With regular surveys, you can set certain metrics for improvement and track them.
The reality is that employees are feeling disconnected at work, even questioning whether what they do matters. Employers have incredible power, however, to take steps to consistently connect employees to meaningful work by actively communicating the impact of their work. When we can see tangible ways our contributions make a difference for our direct team members and the larger business, it’s easier to feel connected to the overall purpose and vision.
The most important takeaway here? Supporting employee mental health is a top priority, always.
Social connection is quite literally a lifeline. A key factor in good mental health: our connections to ourselves, our communities, and the activities and passions are what enrich and fuel our lust for life. But we are in the middle of a loneliness epidemic. According to The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness and isolation contribute substantially to mental health challenges, and as much as physical factors do.
But there’s hope in all of this: one of the antidotes Dr. Murthy suggests is cultivating a culture of connection. This is done through a framework for workplace mental health and wellbeing that he refers to as “showing workers that they matter, that their work matters, and that they have the workplace resources and support necessary to flourish.”
Your people can’t contribute fully or bring energy to your company if they’re not full as people, first. Everyone’s needs are different, but doubling down on mental health support opens the door for healthier, more capable employees.
Mental Health Awareness Month does create a great springboard for many of these conversations and renewed energy to promote change. But now more than ever, real action and investment in wellbeing so that it’s a cornerstone of your company culture.
However you decide to begin or reinvigorate your organization’s approach to employee mental health, keep in mind an overall intention: “We see you, we’re going through it too, we’re here to support you.” If you're looking for inspiration and resources to help you improve employee wellbeing at your organization, explore our Employee Wellbeing Hub.
If you or someone you know has concerns about their mental health, is struggling emotionally, or is experiencing mental health issues, there are ways to get help. Use these resources from the National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI) to find help for you, a friend, or a family member.
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