Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the Boston Center for Work & Family (BCCWF) executive briefing entitled “Mental Health in the Post-Pandemic Workplace: A Culture Shift Toward Transparency and Empathy.” Visit the BCCWF website to access the full briefing and other employee well-being resources.
Over the past several years, there has been an increasing recognition of the impact of mental health in the workplace. From the pervasive problems of stress and burnout, to the movement toward creating cultures of authenticity and belonging, to the examination of the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism, employee mental health has emerged as a critical component in building and retaining a productive and engaged workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health into even sharper focus. Anxieties about health and safety, social isolation, stress related to job loss and a lack of child care contributed to an alarming increase in mental health distress and diagnosable mental health conditions.
According to the CDC, the incidence of depression, anxiety and psychological distress have more than tripled during the pandemic. And among those whose mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic, 32% could not get the mental health services they needed.
As the pandemic has worn on and burnout has escalated, especially among women and younger employees, the “Great Resignation” — or Great Reshuffling as some have termed it — has taken hold, with an increasing number of employees willing to leave or turn down promotions in order to preserve their mental health. What’s more, employees increasingly expect their employers to be the main source of mental health support. In a 2021 Atlassian survey of 2,300 U.S. employees, more than one third of workers polled (38%), including 52% of Millennials, agreed that their employer is the most important provider of mental health support.
Elements of a Holistic Well-Being Program
In response, employers are learning that they must invest adequately in holistic well-being programs, which take a personalized, “whole person” approach to wellness and put behavioral health on equal footing with physical health. These programs should aim to: 1) understand employee mental health and barriers to well-being; 2) reduce stigma and increase empathy and social connection; 3) alleviate stress and burnout; and 4) enable access to timely, high quality care for employees.
Specifically, holistic well-being programs should consider and incorporate the following elements:
- Training and education. Employers should provide guidance to leaders and managers on how to talk about and reinforce well-being among the workforce. Programs such as Mental Health First Aid are critical in educating employees about risk factors and warning signs, strategies for how to assist in crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help when it is needed.
- Support networks and mental health champions. Developing relationships among employees has an under-appreciated but significant impact on well-being. The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that the most impactful employee well-being measures for higher performing organizations were employee participation in social activities, community programs and volunteerism. Onboarding mentors for new employees, dedicated employee resource groups (ERGs) for mental health and well-being champions are also powerful sources of information and social connection.
- Flexible work models. Coming out of the pandemic, nearly three quarters (73%) of workers globally want flexible work options to stay. Autonomy over how and when work gets done has an enormous impact on well-being, in particular. According to a 2021 Visier burnout survey, respondents said flexible work would help alleviate burnout more than any other benefit or initiative.
- Comprehensive mental health benefits. According to Lyra, 84% of workers said mental health benefits are important when considering a new job and 59% said they would stay at a job because it provides robust mental health benefits. Employees, especially working parents, are increasingly seeking support for their entire family and employers are responding with significantly increased investment in programs like pediatric-focused mental health support.
- EAP offerings. A study in the Journal of Management found that employees who took advantage of EAPs, including short-term counseling, screening and awareness tools, showed improvements in anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse symptoms after five months. During COVID-19, Boston College Center for Work & Family (BCCWF) members reported that EAP offerings, including on-site EAP counselors, were utilized more than any other benefit or program.
- On-demand resources. On-demand and app-based mental health tools are gaining ground as a means to support skill-building and self-care, including teletherapy coaching and guided meditation. Research shows these tools are most effective with an introduction and referral from a clinician or health coach.
Keys to Success
With workplace costs of untreated mental illness estimated at $1 trillion globally and rising, the future productivity and prosperity of organizations and their people will depend on building a culture of health in the workplace founded on:
- Leadership support and communication
- Metrics and accountability
- Adequate focus and investment
Leaders must communicate consistently around well-being, promote the organization’s resources, and share their own mental health stories. They should frame well-being broadly in terms of physical, mental/emotional, and financial well-being in equal parts. And leaders should be prepared to invest adequately in all aspects of well-being, recognizing the payoffs in lower healthcare costs and increased employee engagement, loyalty and productivity.
As technology-based metrics and mental health solutions proliferate, employers have the ability to provide high quality support to an increasingly diverse and often remote and far-flung workforce. With a focus on transparency and empathy, employers can re-imagine the workplace with the mental well-being of their workforces front and center.