There’s no denying that 2020 and 2021 have been tough—and tough in a variety of ways. But one area that’s taken a major hit? Employee well-being—including employee mental health. For example, according to a recent survey from FlexJobs and Mental Health America, 75 percent of workers have experienced work-related burnout, a state of chronic stress that can take a huge toll on their mental health—with 40 percent experiencing burnout during the pandemic.
If you want your team to thrive moving forward, supporting mental health in the workplace is a must.
But why, exactly, is mental health at work so important—and how can you create a work culture that supports your employees’ mental and emotional well-being?
What Is Mental Health in the Workplace — and Why Is Supporting Employee Mental Health so Important?
First things first. Before we jump into how to support and improve mental health in the workplace, let’s define what workplace mental health is—and why it’s so important.
When we talk about mental health in the workplace, we’re talking about creating a workplace environment within your organization that supports the mental well-being of your employees. This includes offering employees access to health care; rolling out structured, defined efforts that support your employees’ mental health (for example, launching an employee assistance program that provides reimbursement for mental health services); and embracing a company culture and corporate values that promote mental wellness (for example, making a healthy work-life balance a non-negotiable within your organization).
There are a variety of reasons why prioritizing mental health in the workplace is a must, including:
- Employees are taking their mental health more seriously... The pandemic has shifted the way many people think about mental health—and today, employees are taking their own mental health concerns much more seriously. According to a recent survey from Aetna International, a whopping 84 percent of employees said their mental health is more important to them now than it was a year ago.
- ...and expect their employers to do the same. Not only are employees taking their mental health more seriously—they also expect their employers to do the same. According to the Aetna survey, 65 percent of employees reported they would only return to the office if their employer changed their policies around workplace well-being (for example, by rolling out more wellness initiatives)—and according to the Reimagining Human Experience study from JLL, moving forward, three in four employees are expecting their employer to create a healthy workplace that supports their health, well-being, and nutrition.
- Absenteeism. When employees struggle with mental illness or mental health issues—and don’t get the support they need—it can be a major cost for businesses, particularly when it comes to absenteeism. For example, according to data from the CDC, depression causes approximately 200 million lost work days each year—at a cost of between $17 and $44 billion dollars.
- Work-related stress. One of the biggest mental health issues in the workplace? Stress—which can be extremely detrimental, both to the individual and the organization. When employees are chronically stressed, it can lead to burnout—which drives a host of negative symptoms for the employee (like physical and mental exhaustion and decreased productivity and focus) and the company (like issues with retention and turnover).
Clearly, mental health in the workplace is important. But as an employer, how can you support your team’s mental health—and create a better, more productive workplace in the process?
Talk Openly about Mental Health
Arguably the biggest obstacle in the way of creating healthier workplaces that support employees’ mental health and well-being? The stigma that surrounds mental illness, mental health conditions, and mental health struggles in general.
Many companies (and individuals) don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health. And because there’s not an open dialogue within the workplace, employees that are struggling with mental health likely won’t feel comfortable sharing what they’re going through or seeking help—until it becomes too much to handle, causing negative effects for both them and your company.
That’s why, if you want to support mental health in the workplace? It starts by being willing to talk about it.
There are a number of benefits to talking about mental health at work. First off, having an open dialogue about mental health will empower employees to speak up and seek help if and when they need it. Plus, when team members see their co-workers and leaders talking about their own mental health issues, it can make them feel less alone—which can make the process feel a bit easier to navigate.
So, if you want to make mental health at work a priority, start by talking about it. Share your own experiences with mental health. Host a series of “lunch-and learns” where you educate your team about common behavioral health/mental health conditions, like anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, or depression. The more you talk about mental health at work, the more your team will be willing to talk about it—and the better you can support them as a result.
Notice When Employees Are Struggling
Even if you speak openly about mental health at work, some employees won’t speak up when they’re struggling. So, as a leader, it’s your job to notice when your employees are stressed, overwhelmed, or struggling with more serious mental health disorders—and encourage them to take care of themselves.
For example, let’s say you have an employee that’s been working overtime for weeks to finish a project—and you notice they seem overwhelmed, upset, and anxious. Instead of waiting for them to come to you and say they need a break, recognize their hard work—and encourage them to take a mental health day. Or maybe you notice one of your employees—an employee you know struggles with an anxiety disorder—seems withdrawn. Mental health struggles can be isolating, so instead of leaving the ball in their court, look for ways to get them to re-engage with you and the team—like hosting an event you know they’d enjoy or inviting them for coffee (either virtual or in-person).
The point is, your employees are responsible for their mental health—but as an employer, you’re also responsible for noticing when they’re struggling and encouraging them to take the time and space they need to take care of themselves.
Embrace Initiatives That Support Mental Health
Talking about mental health is important—and so is providing direct support when you notice employees are struggling. But if you really want to make mental health in the workplace a priority, you need to have policies and systems in place that actively support mental well-being.
For example, if you want to lower stress in the workplace (and support your employees’ mental health in the process), you might launch a “mindfulness in the workplace” wellness initiative, complete with lectures on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a combination of online and on-site meditation offerings. Or, if you want to provide support for both mental and physical health, you might roll out a fitness and nutrition initiative, with elements like education on how diet and exercise impact mental and physical wellness, healthy snacks in the office kitchen, and a stipend for fitness or yoga classes.
The point is, if you want to create a work environment that supports mental health, it’s not enough to talk the talk. You also have to walk the walk—and that means putting processes, systems, and initiatives in place that foster physical, mental, and emotional wellness at work.
Understand Your Responsibilities — and Your Limitations
When it comes to mental health, as an employer it’s important to understand your responsibilities to your employees—as well as your limitations.
For example, as we’ve covered, you’re responsible for taking steps to create a work environment that supports mental well-being (and your human resources department is responsible for understanding any relevant laws, regulations, or best practices regarding mental health, like not punishing or firing an employee for taking time off to manage mental health conditions or issues).
But you are not a medical professional or a treatment center. You are not qualified to provide mental health care or advise clients on how they should or shouldn’t treat their mental health problems. Instead, if you have an employee that’s struggling, make sure to share any relevant mental health resources (including resources on potential co-occurring issues, like substance abuse) and encourage them to seek the professional help they need to navigate their mental health challenges—and get on the road to recovery.
Can You Dismiss an Employee with Mental Health Issues or For Taking a Mental Health Day?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can't discriminate against someone for having a disability, including mental illness—which means you can't fire an employee, reject them for a job or promotion, or force them to take leave because of their mental illness. But you also don't have to hire or keep people in jobs they aren't able to perform, or employ people who are a direct threat to safety. Before you can take any action, however, you'll need objective evidence that the employee can't perform their job duties or that they would create a significant safety risk, even with a reasonable accommodation (like a modified break or work schedule, a quieter office space, or other adjustments).
Requirements around mental health days will vary based on the situation. For example, if your employee has a mental illness and needs to take time off to treat that illness (for example, taking a day off to manage symptoms of clinical depression), then under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can't fire or discipline them in any way. But if an employee is feeling stressed and overwhelmed and wants to take a mental health day to rest and recharge, that wouldn't be covered—and how you handle that situation would be at your discretion.
Create a Work Environment That Supports Your Employees’ Mental Health
If you want your employees—and your business—to thrive, prioritizing mental health in the workplace is a must. And now that you know how to build a culture that values mental well-being, you’re equipped with the information you need to support your employees’ mental health—and support your business in the process.