Our collective mental health is facing a crisis. This didn’t start with COVID, but the impact of a pandemic has been undeniable. Globally, there are more than 300 million people of all ages who suffer from depression, and there are more than 260 million living with anxiety disorders—all this despite the fact that most mental illnesses are highly treatable. We need to destigmatize the conversation around mental health and ensure that people have access to the care they need at any stage of health.
Our understanding of mental health is rapidly evolving.
We have come to understand mental health as a continuum. On one side we have mental illness, which is the term we often use to describe people who are struggling with their mental wellbeing and may be unable to engage in normal daily activities. On the other end of that continuum there are people thriving in their lives and feel supported by those around them. In between these two poles, the idea of general population health has emerged. This is where most people spend their time on the continuum: Neither thriving nor struggling, but instead experiencing a range of emotions and responses that contribute to how they see themselves and their lives.
As our understanding of how different factors influence mental health has evolved, so has our understanding of what support looks like. It’s no longer enough to provide solutions for people only when they are in a crisis. We need to protect our mental health at every step along the continuum. You wouldn’t wait until you had a heart attack to start working on your fitness, why wait until there is a crisis to start working on your mental health.
The workplace is a critical area for improvement in the field of mental health.
In the US, mental health problems are the leading cause of sickness absence. Moreover, up to $44 billion (about $34,500 per FTE in the US) is lost by employers every year due to depression alone.
Companies that invest in their employees’ wellbeing are more likely to outperform their competitors. This is true for active employees and potential hires. The top two employer concerns right now are talent acquisition and mental health, they may be more interrelated than you think. Surveys suggest that 8 out of 10 employees will choose a job at an employer offering well-being benefits over employers without them.
For companies, it is important to create a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health and provide support systems that nurture good psychological wellbeing (policies such as flexible working hours, training and development programs). Companies must also ensure that employees are not overworked or under excessive pressure as this can exacerbate many issues associated with poor mental health.
Companies that invest in their employees’ wellbeing will outperform their competitors.
The need for companies to be flexible, create a safe space, listen and be proactive and open with employees about their mental health is now a business necessity. Employers must build trust by providing support, resources and gratitude to lift people up. Workplace wellness is no longer optional. The trickle-down effect of poor mental health leads to absenteeism, presenteeism (when employees come in but don’t function at full capacity), accidents and other issues that take their toll on the bottom line.
The clear role employers can play is encouraging workplace wellness—in the broadest sense—with actions that can include everything from simply listening to an employee if they want to talk about something that’s bothering them, making it easy for them to find information about available mental health programs or changing up the physical work environment. Just as importantly, leaders need to explicitly make clear the importance of mental well-being in greater society, so everyone understands why it matters and how that understanding affects individuals at work.
How companies can lead employee mental health
It’s time to talk about how you can lead change in the way we work.
Employers are best positioned to take action for employee mental health both in and out of the workplace. They already have a role and responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of their employees. In today’s world where work has become constant, companies need to be creative about how they support mental health in the workplace. This is an essential responsibility for all employers, no matter what size or industry your organization is in.
The future workplace is one that supports mental health. This means providing resources and tools that enable employees to get help during times of stress or anxiety, as well as promoting resilience, mindfulness and empowerment. Employees are looking for more flexibility so they can better balance their personal priorities with professional obligations—and it’s up to employers everywhere to create environments where this kind of balance is possible without compromising quality of work/life challenges people face every day at home or on the job.