Whether it’s Simone Biles stepping back from the Olympic stage or working mothers slogging through the pandemic, Americans are increasingly speaking out about the connection between their mental health and their work.
While COVID-19 brought mental health struggles into the spotlight, the reality is that employees and employers have grappled with these issues for years. Nearly one in five US adults reported mental illness in 2016, and 71% reported at least one symptom of stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, 63% of Americans are part of the labor force, where they may either face mental health challenges, or access resources and services to cope –– most likely both.
One thing is clear: Mental health and work are inextricably linked. Research shows that lonely employees take twice as many sick days, are less committed to their jobs, and perform worse. By undermining a person’s ability to complete work, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion every year. In the US, that number is more than $50 billion.
Just as mental health impacts work, work also influences mental health. Workers are linked not only by job responsibilities, but by their mental state — because negative emotions are contagious and can negatively impact the entire team. Moreover, workplace issues such as a lack of safety or control, unclear policies, and unsupportive managers can drive these negative feelings and harm mental health, according to the World Health Organization. Today, many employees feel burned out by demanding and inflexible workplace cultures.
The good news is that employers have a unique vantage point from which to promote mental health. Because companies already communicate regularly with workers about policies, they can smoothly implement new mental health resources and programs.
What’s more, leaders are increasingly realizing that supporting workers emotionally is a business imperative. COVID-19’s massive upheaval proved that even the most dedicated employees can’t separate their work and personal lives. As a result, 41% of companies plan to expand mental health benefits in 2021, and 59% said they increased caregiving benefits during the pandemic to boost their employees’ mental health, according to a survey by Care.com.
Adding benefits is a great step, but experts say a more radical, transparent approach to mental health at work is also necessary. Creating a culture of caring by increasing vulnerability should start from the top, with bosses setting an example by discussing their own struggles, coping mechanisms, and healthy habits.
This level of transparency is already becoming more common in firms with younger workers, who are pushing employers to rethink approaches to mental health. At the social media software company Buffer, for example, CEO Joel Gascoigne posts about his therapy appointments in a Slack channel devoted to healthy work life.
“It's hard to be the first to talk about mental health,” Courtney Seiter, Buffer’s director of people, told the Society for Human Resources Management. “To have someone like Joel say he's going to a therapist and what he's working on paves the way for someone else to say something about what they're going through.”
Employee resource groups, like one established at Best Buy’s corporate headquarters, offer a similar avenue for colleagues to build inclusive communities and focus on mental health.
By opening the door for employees to freely share how they’re feeling, and by responding authentically and supportively, leaders can increase their teams’ emotional connections. These connections, research shows, lead to improved psychological well-being.
Increasingly, they’re also linked to improved bottom lines. Take, for example, the Canadian telecommunications giant Bell. Since launching a major mental health initiative in 2010 that focused on creating a culture of support through expanded resources and mandatory leader training, the organization has achieved a 4:1 ROI for the program. It has also seen recurrences in employees’ mental health-related disability leave decrease by more than 50%.
While openness is critical, CEOs and managers don’t need to spend hours plumbing their employees’ psyches to create a culture of caring. Instead, leaders can take small steps to normalize honest discussion of emotions and share resources. In particular, an atmosphere of transparency increases opportunities for leaders to remind employees about company-sponsored resources like employee assistance programs (EAPs) –– and also improves the chances that employees will actually take advantage of them.
Increasing EAPs’ usage is a major mental-health win for organizations. While these programs have well-established efficacy, usage has historically been too low, as many employees are unaware of the services and others decline to use them because of anonymity concerns. Workplaces that have established a culture of caring not only remove the stigma around seeking help, but also better communicate how to access available support. The more employees use EAPs, the more the programs’ positive impact on wellness and productivity grows.
To encourage transparency and sharing, managers should push beyond a simple, “How are you doing?” during regular check-ins with their direct reports. This process should not be considered an invitation to try to solve the employee’s problems. In fact, the simple act of quiet listening is one of the most powerful ways to respond to someone’s struggles. Even if employees don’t want to share details, knowing that they have the option provides reassurance.
Gratitude is another simple yet transformative workplace practice. Leaders don’t have to go as far as Douglas Conant, the former Campbell Soup CEO who sent 30,000 handwritten thank-you notes to employees, but regular expressions of thanks to colleagues go a long way in boosting job satisfaction and reducing stress.
Vulnerability, gratitude, and the resulting emotional connections at work combine to create feelings of psychological safety. This feeling –– which occurs when employees feel safe to speak up about both personal and work-related issues, take risks, and share their whole selves –– is the most important element of team success, according to extensive research at Google.
Ultimately, a culture of caring depends on leaders’ willingness to model the same transparency, empathy, and healthy habits they hope to instill in their teams. Whether it’s by routinely taking five minutes at the beginning of a meeting to thank team members for specific efforts; by modeling behavior such as carving out time for an afternoon walk or blocking an hour on the calendar for therapy; or by sharing personal details about struggles with grief, anxiety, or depression, leaders have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference.
Like any transformation, this process requires courage, discipline, and investment. Many results –– reduced absenteeism, improved productivity, more functional teams –– will be easily quantifiable. Others, like creating a more sustainable workplace reality for future generations of employees, may be harder to capture but may prove even more rewarding. That’s why it’s time to start today.