New Era for Addressing Employee’s Mental Wellness in the Workplace
By Anne Kennedy, SPHR
Director of Human Resources, Horizon Health
Stress is a common problem for employees at work, and it was heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we have returned to a post-COVID period, one silver lining amid all the disruption and trauma of the pandemic has been the normalization of mental health challenges at work. The pandemic raised the stakes for employers to have a greater awareness of many workplace factors that could potentially contribute to poor mental health.
While there are several things in life that induce stress, work can be one of those factors. Conversely, workplaces can also be a key source of resources, solutions, and activities designed to improve our mental health and well-being.
However, left unaddressed the stress can lead to deficiencies in:
- Job performance
- Work engagement and communication
- Physical capability and daily functioning
The workplace has always presented various stressors and these issues can exacerbate the risk of experiencing mental health challenges. Employees are constantly dealing with new stressors introduced to the workplace, and in some instances, these stressors have amplified other issues at work. According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association, more than 80% of US workers have reported experiencing workplace stress, and more than 50% believe their stress related to work impacts their life at home. Workplace stressors may include:
- Concerns about job security (e.g., potential lay-offs, reductions in assigned hours).
- Fear of employer retaliation.
- Facing confrontation from customers, patients, co-workers, supervisors, or employers.
- Adapting to new or different workspace and schedule or work rules.
- Having to learn new or different tasks or take on more responsibilities.
- Learning new communication tools and dealing with technical difficulties.
- Blurring of work-life boundaries, making it hard for workers to disconnect from the office.
- Finding ways to work while simultaneously caring for children including overseeing online schooling or juggling other caregiving responsibilities, such as caring for sick, elderly, or disabled household members.
Due to many potential stressor’s employees may be experiencing, a comprehensive approach is needed to address stressors throughout the community, and we, as employers, can be part of the solution. More than 85% of employees surveyed in 2021 by the American Psychological Association reported that actions from their employer could potentially help their mental health.
In fact, the World Health Organization estimate that for every single dollar employers in the United States spend addressing common mental health issues, they receive a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. Employers can make a difference when it comes to helping their staff manage stress.
A few key things I recommend:
- Be aware and acknowledge that people can carry an emotional load that is unique to their own circumstances. They may be experiencing heightened levels of loneliness, isolation, uncertainty, grief, and stress; and some may face additional demands, such as parents caring for children or elderly household members; and those with existing mental health or substance use challenges.
- Communication is the key to managing employee stress. Stress can ebb and flow — therefore building communication channels is critical. Employers who have fostered good communication will be ready when employees face new stressors at work.
- Identify factors that are making it difficult for employees to get their jobs done and determine if adjustments can be made.
- Show empathy. Ensure your employees that 1) they are not alone, 2) you understand the stress they are under, 3) there is no shame in feeling anxious, and 4) encourage them to ask for help when they need it. Reassure our employees that we are open and receptive to discussions about their work stress, by creating a safe and trustworthy space.
- Provide access to coping and resiliency resources, workplace and leave flexibilities without penalty, or other supportive networks and services. Research from the American Psychological Association suggests 50 % of employees find that a lack of paid time off or sick leave has a negative impact on stress levels at work.
The goal is to find ways to alleviate or remove stressors in the workplace to the greatest extent possible, build coping and resiliency supports, and ensure that people who need help know where to turn.
While there is a great amount of work to be done, companies such as ours have made progress in terms of adapting their culture to more of an awareness about the wellness of their employee. “This is especially important to us,” says Jennifer Facteau, CEO of Horizon Health. “As a behavioral health company focused on improving access to high quality care, we have made it a priority to focus on our employees as much as our patients.” Culture change requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach to succeed.
Workplace mental health is no different, but it begins with leaders and managers. 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. Let’s face it, we are all human and too have experienced our own personal hardships and losses.
Due to fear and shame, even companies with the best mental health benefits will see an uptick in usage unless a stigma-free culture exists. “Building the right culture always starts with its leaders. One of our core beliefs is that mental health IS health and our leadership team here at Horizon is focused on creating psychologically safe environments where our employees feel supported,” states Facteau.
So, the question is, what can organizations do to assist with mental health in the workplace? Organizations must train leaders, managers, and all employees on how to navigate mental health at work, have difficult conversations, and most importantly create supportive workplaces. Treating everyone single individual with dignity and respect is paramount in cultivating an environment of trust and mental health. 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.
“We are normalizing talking about mental health. In the same way people may share physical health goals or tips, we encourage our leaders and team members to discuss mental health as well. One thing I personally do every day is practice gratitude, what I like to call, mindful moments. This is how I start and end my day, and as a leadership team, we share these moments with each other. The more we do this and share, we start to see others being willing to engage in these types of activities, too,” Facteau discusses.
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. Promoting autonomy, establishing boundaries, and creating norms around communications, responsiveness, and urgency can go a long way toward building a mentally healthy culture. “Our employees’ health is important, both physical and mental, and we will continue to reduce the stigma, provide education and resources, incorporate wellness activities, and lead by example,” says Facteau.
Leaders must model mentally healthy behaviors such as compassion, kindness, and respect in all aspects of communication in order for their team members to do the same. Toxic managers and leaders must not be tolerated in the organization. Regular conversations between managers and direct reports can assist in articulating individual working styles and preferences which supports inclusion. Employers must also ensure that teams have the resources and bandwidth necessary to do their jobs effectively while remaining mentally healthy. Other possible ideas include no email after hours, focused work time, and no-meeting days.
Building a deeper connection within your organization and fostering 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 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 “What can I do to help you?” especially at the manager level. The importance of empathy and authenticity cannot be overstated.
The massive societal shifts underway have changed company cultures and employee perceptions around mental health. Although employers have started to invest more, employees have rightfully increased their expectations. The future of workplace mental health demands culture change — with more vulnerability, compassion, and sustainable ways of working. We have already started down the path of culture change thanks to the pandemic. We need to use this moment to be intentional as we craft new ways of working instead of rushing back to the status quo of pre-pandemic times.
American Psychological Association. (2021). Work and well-being 2021 survey report. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pubs/reports/work-well-being/compounding-pressure-2021
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