Prioritizing Employees’ Mental Health: Strategies for Fostering a Supportive Workplace

Jan 4, 2024 | Employee Engagement, HR Trends

Too often, ignoring mental health needs silently undermines employee engagement, performance, and well-being. This, in turn, affects team and company success. Yet many HR departments hold back from addressing the issue head-on due to fear of making missteps.

In 2019, 15% of working adults had a mental health condition, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Globally, this results in 12 billion lost working days worldwide and $1 trillion in lost productivity within the U.S. During the pandemic, mental health challenges spiked, leading many employers to double down on efforts to prioritize mental health. Today, 75% of employees have struggled with a mental health issue at one point or another.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. deal with mental illness every year. And 1 in 20 experience a serious mental illness. According to NAMI, “A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior or mood. These conditions deeply impact day-to-day living and may also affect the ability to relate to others.” 

Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia can impact one’s ability to relate to others or perform work. However, using the right strategies can allow people with mental health conditions to excel in their role. Through supportive policies, practices, and organizational culture, HR professionals can help everyone in their workplace to thrive.

Table of Contents

1. Understanding the Impact of Mental Health on Work

2. Recognizing the Signs

3. Creating a Culture of Openness

4. Implementing Supportive Policies and Practices

5. Providing Training and Resources

Understanding the Impact of Mental Health on Work

Mental health issues can have a substantial influence on employee performance, engagement, and overall well-being. And work, in turn, can have a sizable influence on mental health.

Key Statistics on Mental Health in the Workplace

These findings on mental health in the workplace reveal a significant relationship between mental health and work performance:

  • 84% of employees say their job has contributed to at least one mental health condition, the U.S. Surgeon General found.
  • 71% of Canadian employees say mental health issues have affected their ability to perform their work in the past year.
  • 81% wish to find a workplace that better supports their mental health in the future. 
  • 76% of U.S. employees experience at least one symptom of a mental health condition, the U.S. Surgeon General reports. 
  • 59% of employees say the state of their mental health is holding back their career advancement, reports Bryan Robinson in Forbes.
  • Mental health issues lead to 62% of absences, says Kaiser Permanente. And 50% of employees have left a job for mental health reasons. For Millennials and Gen Zers, this number rises to 68% and 81%, respectively.
  • 31% of employees feel that mental health days would improve their well-being, Robinson adds.

Among Canadian workers who feel their employers prioritize mental health, 83% have no intention to switch jobs, reports Benefits Canada. So, supporting workplace mental health needs could bring a major boost for employee retention. In addition, as mental health issues can lead to myriad physical health problems, supporting mental health promotes overall well-being.

For businesses, neglecting mental health brings serious cost implications through increased absences; lowered productivity, employee engagement, innovation, and morale; and higher turnover. Addressing mental health needs benefits everyone, from employees to leaders and key stakeholders.

Risks to Mental Health at Work

Work can pose significant risks to mental health when issues go unaddressed. The presence of these risks can have deep repercussions for mental health, according to the WHO:

  • Underutilization of core skills
  • Not having the required skills for the job
  • Lack of social time at work
  • Inflexible work hours
  • Unfairly high workload (and lack of control over task load)
  • Inadequate support from a manager or a team
  • Lack of clarity about role
  • Unhealthy organizational culture
  • Poor (or unsafe) working environment
  • Discrimination or lack of inclusion
  • Job insecurity or low pay
  • Poor training opportunities
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Poor work/life balance

Any of these factors can undermine the employee experience and contribute to workplace mental health issues. Now, let’s examine how to spot the signs that employees may be experiencing mental health challenges early on.

Recognizing the Signs

HR departments should stay alert to both risks and signs of mental health challenges. Use performance management software to detect changes in workload, productivity, or engagement that could indicate a problem.

Learn to spot the signs of mental health struggles so you can address them early on. Here are some common ones to look out for (especially if they continue for more than a week):

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Exhaustion
  • Loss of interest in work they used to enjoy
  • Irritability or nervousness
  • Lower participation than normal
  • Excessive worrying

As an HR professional, you don’t need to know the specific condition an employee is dealing with unless the employee chooses to disclose it. But if an employee’s behaviour has markedly changed, you can ask them in private about how they’re doing. Check in about how their work is affecting their well-being and what support they need. Work to create a safe space for the employee to raise concerns, so they won’t feel like they’re being scrutinized. Conveying empathy and assuring them that they’re not alone will help put them at ease.

Creating a Culture of Openness

Women discussing freely in an open work culture
Credit: Christina Morillo/ Pexels

During the pandemic, workers and employers became more comfortable discussing mental health. However, this shifted in 2023, report researchers Bernie Wong and Kelly Greenwood in Harvard Business Review. “In fact, workers’ comfort with talking about their mental health to senior leaders nearly halved from 37% in 2021 to just 19% in 2023,” they assert. Many companies went back to a business-as-usual approach to productivity goals while still giving lip service to the importance of well-being, they explain, adding, “Amid mixed signals, workers’ sense of psychological safety within their organizations deteriorated despite greater awareness and healthier beliefs at the individual level.”

How can HR foster a workplace culture where mental health is openly discussed and destigmatized?

  • Encourage leaders and managers to share their own mental health stories, if they wish, say Wong and Greenwood. This openness can foster a broader culture of acceptance.
  • Share warning signs of conditions like depression and anxiety, as the Center for Workplace Mental Health says. Encourage employees to check in with each other if something seems to be wrong, or to seek assistance if they’re experiencing symptoms.
  • Conduct regular mental health awareness trainings to normalize talking about mental health issues. In these trainings, discuss symptoms of mental illness, work-related risk factors, and how to mitigate such conditions.
  • Hold workshops to discuss self-care practices, and encourage employees to share what works for them.

Efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion also improve mental health in the workplace, Wong and Greenwood emphasize. People who have been historically marginalized have the additional burdens of dealing with microaggressions and discrimination, which can increase mental health risks. Since lifting these burdens can strengthen mental health, it should be a core HR priority. Plus, combating mental health stigma is a core component of DEI.

Together, these best practices for encouraging dialogue around mental health issues will promote employee well-being. Next, we’ll discuss how to take your efforts a step further.

Implementing Supportive Policies and Practices

HR professional looking into implenting supportive policies and practices
Credit: Christina Morillo/ Pexels

By leveraging the right strategies, you’ll help your workplace to truly thrive. You’ll support employees in coping with mental health conditions in healthy ways, while also ensuring that work doesn’t exacerbate them.

1. Foster a Healthy Work Culture

In a 2023 survey, 78% of respondents ranked a sustainable work culture as the top way to improve mental health in the workplace, report Wong and Greenwood. In a healthy work culture, employees don’t feel overburdened or unrecognized for their contributions. They have a supportive community at work and feel a sense of control over their workload. When workplace culture aligns with human needs for well-being, stress plummets and employees thrive, the authors assert.

How to implement such a culture? Reassess employees’ task loads regularly. Coach all managers on how to do this during their one-on-ones and performance evaluations. Conduct anonymous surveys to learn whether employees feel overworked or in need of more support. HR can also compare the workloads of different employees and teams across the organization to assess whether they are carrying a fair share of the weight.

2. Conduct Anonymous Surveys

Survey employees anonymously on whether they have experienced any of the risks or signs of mental health conditions mentioned above. (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers a survey on workplace stress, for instance.) Synthesize the results and share your findings, as well as steps you plan to take to address any problems.

3. Discuss Employees’ Needs Sensitively

If an employee tells you that they have a mental health condition, you can discuss their individual needs. Focus on the impacts on their work, steering clear of discussing potential causes from outside of work, says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Show empathy for their experience and a desire to partner with them to find solutions. Reassure them that they’re not alone and that you’re glad they spoke up.

4. Accommodate Mental Health Needs on the Job

Both Canada and the U.S. require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for mental health conditions. Specific accommodations will vary based on individual needs. Here are several general types of accommodations to offer.

A Private Space at Work

If you have a physical office space, make sure there are quiet areas where people can find privacy. If employees work remotely, consider offering perks like coworking memberships or childcare assistance to help them find space to focus.

Similarly, if an employee’s desk sits along a noisy thoroughfare, you could allow them to move to a quieter corner.

Flexible Work Arrangements

Be flexible in terms of where, when, and how employees work, advises the American Psychological Association. What does this mean in practice?

  • Allowing for breaks, rests, or naps during the workday.
  • Letting employees play a role in setting their hours.
  • Allowing for hybrid or remote work.
  • Not micromanaging how employees complete their work.

Talk with employees about any additional needs for flexibility.

A Designated Support Person

For some employees, having a specific support person could help with managing anxiety and maintaining focus. Others may benefit from an emotional support animal.

Reduction of Triggers

Minimizing triggers like noise, light, and high-stress situations can also enhance mental health at work for some employees.

Emotional Regulation Tools

A number of apps today assist with emotional regulation. Self-help apps can aid in coping with stress, building emotional intelligence skills, and boosting concentration, for instance. A therapist could recommend specific tools that may benefit a specific employee.

Catering to the Employee’s Learning Style

Accommodating the employee’s learning style can boost well-being. For example, providing visual illustrations of concepts benefits some employees. Tools such as goal-tracking software and interactive learning modules can also help employees stay engaged and focused.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides a longer list of potential accommodations. As an HR professional, familiarizing yourself with these options will prepare you to assist employees with a broad range of mental health concerns.

5. Embrace a Servant Leadership Approach

Research has found that compassion in leaders and managers can help mitigate employees’ psychological issues and boost well-being at work. Following a servant leadership approach can bring powerful results, explain researchers in an article published in Frontiers in Psychology.

“Servant leaders exhibit empathy and compassion, which help alleviate employees’ emotional pain caused by work stress,” they explain. “Hence, servant leadership may reduce employees’ psychological pain through effective communication.” Further, these leaders empower employees; the trust they place in them further reduces stress at work.

In weekly one-on-ones, managers should ask employees about their well-being, along with any barriers to wellness their job is creating. They should check in about workload, feelings of being overwhelmed, frustrations, work relationships, and satisfaction with work culture and environment. Using an empathetic tone and listening attentively will encourage candid answers. Then, managers can work to find solutions tailored to employees’ needs.

6. Provide Access to Counseling Services

Make sure your company offers access to mental health services. Ensure that therapist directories offered through your benefits platform are easy to navigate, too (Psychology Today offers a therapist directory as well). Provide resources for specialized interventions, like substance use treatment, coping with grief or trauma, and anger management.

Further, ensure that your overall healthcare plans offer robust options, as health needs and expenses can be a major source of stress.

7. Offer Mental Health Days

According to Robinson, 62% of workers fear their employer would frown on them for taking a mental health day. One study found that 68% worry that mentioning their mental health issues could harm their reputation at work, he adds.

Counteract this stigma by urging employees to use sick days for mental health days when needed. Make sure your policy on paid time off clarifies that sick leave can be used in this way. Emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health and that the two are interconnected. Taking time off to rest and recharge will benefit the whole company.

Providing Training and Resources

Employees being provided mental health training and resources
Credit: fauxels/Pexels

Conduct training with managers and employees on how to use the resources available to them. Encouraging employees to fully utilize these resources, and providing clear guidance, will empower them to take the next step.

Provide ongoing training for managers and all employees on mental health awareness and support, too. Through these trainings, managers can continue honing their emotional intelligence and ability to tactfully intervene when needed.

Educate HR staff and leaders on mental health-related policies as well. In the U.S., the Department of Labour provides resources on such regulations. In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers such resources. Use this checklist for promoting mental health at work to help ensure you’ve covered all your bases.

Provide resources for self-help and professional support to employees as well:

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs). Share information on a wide range of employee assistance programs, like those providing caregiver support, guidance with family issues, and help overcoming addiction. Such programs help employees overcome key challenges and promote overall well-being.
  • Financial Planning Guidance. Financial stress is a major cause of anxiety—92% of employees struggle with finances, and 72% of them say these challenges contribute to mental health issues. In Canada, 79% of employees say a financial wellness program would lower their stress, while only half said their employer offers one. So, offer access to classes on topics like financial planning, investing, and home-buying. Also, reevaluate salaries and benefits periodically to make sure they’re keeping up with inflation.

Prioritizing mental health in the workplace is not just a moral imperative, but also a strategic business decision. As you leverage the strategies described here, you’ll cultivate a more vibrant, creative, and committed workforce.

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