Workplace Mental Health: ‘A Collective Priority’

It is commonly understood that our emotional wellbeing was challenged during the pandemic. A study conducted last year bears that out.

Author: Michelle Russell       

woman looking out office window

A 2021 workplace mental health survey found that mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels.

More than eight out of 10 respondents to a workplace mental health survey published last year reported at least one workplace factor that had a negative impact on their mental health — the most common being emotionally draining work and challenges with work/life balance.

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article highlighted the findings of that survey and compared them to a similar survey conducted in 2019, both among 1,500 U.S. full-time employees.

“Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics and ServiceNow offers a rare comparison of the state of mental health, stigma, and work culture in U.S. workplaces before and during the pandemic,” write HBR article authors Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas. Greenwood is founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that aims to change the culture of workplace mental health, and Anas is chief people officer at experience management company Qualtrics.

The study found that mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels. Seventy-six percent of respondents to the 2021 study reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition over the past year — up from 59 percent in 2019.

“Employers must move from seeing mental health as an individual challenge to a collective priority,” the authors write. “Given all the work- place factors at play, companies can no longer compartmentalize mental health as an individual’s responsibility to address alone through self-care, mental health days, or employee benefits.”

Below is an excerpt of the actions the authors say employers need to take to support the mental health of their workers.

Culture Change

Leaders must treat mental health as an organizational priority with accountability mechanisms such as regular pulse surveys and clear ownership. It should not just be relegated to HR. Leaders should serve as allies by sharing their own personal experiences to foster an environment of transparency and openness. Due to fear and shame, even companies with the best mental health benefits won’t see an uptick in usage unless a stigma-free culture exists.

Organizations have to train leaders, managers, and all employees on how to navigate mental health at work, have difficult conversations, and create supportive workplaces. Managers are often the first line in noticing changes and supporting their direct reports. Building an environment of psychological safety is key. Mental health policies, practices, culturally competent benefits, and other resources must be put in place and (over)communicated.

Investing in DEI to support employee mental health and address its intersectionality also is crucial. Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander employees have been hit especially hard by the trauma of systemic racism and violence. Workers who are caregivers — often mothers — have faced school closures and the associated burnout. Our study found that allowing employees to discuss challenging social and political topics at work is also part of a mentally healthy culture. At the grassroots level, employees should be empowered to form mental health employee resource groups (ERGs), become mental health champions, and start peer listening initiatives.

More Sustainable Ways of Working

Employers must change their ways of working to be more sustainable — it’s time. A critical component is providing flexibility, which many workers experienced with remote work for the first time during the pandemic. Respondents reported that their company’s return-to-office plans were negatively impacting their mental health. The top two reasons given were the policies around in-person versus remote work (41 percent) and the lack of work-life balance or flexibility based on the policy (37 percent).

Promoting autonomy, establishing boundaries, and creating norms around communications, responsiveness, and urgency can go a long way toward building a mentally healthy culture. For example, a professional services firm might require long hours for a client deadline but could make internal deadlines more malleable. Other ideas include no email after hours, focused work time, and no-meeting days. Leaders must model these and other mentally healthy behaviors for employees to truly feel like they can do the same. Having conversations between managers and direct reports to articulate individual working styles and preferences supports inclusion. Employers must also ensure that teams have the resources and bandwidth necessary to do their jobs effectively while remaining mentally healthy.

Deeper Connection

Finally, a culture of connection is key — from regular check-ins that make time for the question, “How are you?” to healthy working relationships to meaningful interactions among teams. Employers should provide organization-wide opportunities for connection and also promote these ongoing, deeper one-on-one conversations between managers and direct reports as well as between colleagues. “How are you?” should always be followed up with “How can I help you?” especially at the manager level. The importance of empathy and authenticity cannot be overstated.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.