The terms “mental health” and “mental well-being” are often used interchangeably, but they are different concepts that should be addressed using different approaches. It has become critical for employers to offer more holistic employee benefits that recognize the distinction, particularly as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mental health is a term to describe a clinical assessment of a person’s mental state of health, and often involves a specific diagnosis to help identify an appropriate treatment plan. As the American Psychiatric Association says, mental health “involves effective functioning in daily activities, resulting in productive activities (work, school, caregiving); healthy relationships; and ability to adapt and change and cope with adversity.”
Mental well-being is more comprehensive and preventative, requiring a fundamentally proactive approach that can be actively cultivated in daily life. Many different areas of life affect a person’s mental well-being, from emotional factors like stress management and mindfulness, to physical ones like diet, exercise, and tobacco cessation to countless others that touch upon one’s daily work and personal life, such as family relationships, financial health, and professional development.
Health experts in recent years have been expanding the definition of mental health to include these broader well-being concepts. For example, the World Health Organization goes by the following definition: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
More and more companies I’ve spoken with are realizing that the pandemic, along with all other social, economic, and political stressors of the last two years, have upended traditional notions of employee care. There is a growing understanding that what constitutes “well-being” has become far more complex, and supporting it more challenging.
Approaches that were standard operating procedure for decades—such as health plans and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offerings that provide clinical mental health services for employees in moments of distress or crisis—are now seen as too reactive and limited to address the full range of employee needs on their own.
At the board level, many companies view insufficient attention to employee well-being as a threat to productivity and, conversely, a strong commitment to each worker’s physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity as a competitive advantage for recruiting and retaining talent in a time of labor shortages and the Great Resignation.
Initiatives like enhanced mental health services and no-work mental health days became common across corporate America in 2021—positive steps, for sure—but organizations will need to do more in 2022 and beyond to further nurture active processes and practices that help employees build resilience and flourish. According to a 2020 Harvard Business Review survey, 85% of people say their emotional wellness has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak started. This is a reality companies can’t ignore, and they have no choice but to continue being aggressive and creative in addressing it. Here are a few areas to start.
Show employee care is top priority
Anxiety, stress, and burnout in the workplace are frequently cited as a major contributor to the Great Resignation, during which more and more employees have been voluntarily leaving their jobs. To retain talent and future-proof organizations, leaders must nurture an environment where employees feel valued and are offered resources that help them feel good in all aspects of their lives.
Every company on the planet likes to say, “Employees are our most valuable asset.” Post-pandemic, organizations must prove it like never before. Savvy companies are shifting to a mindset in which employers take greater responsibility for supporting each employee’s unique lifestyle and needs.
Think of it as empathy wrapped into business rationale: People are far more likely to stay with a company they feel truly cares about them.
Reimagine employee benefits
2019 was just a couple of years ago; however, it seems far more distant when you think about how most companies used to treat their employees’ mental well-being. Mental health services were often included in employee medical benefits and it was de rigueur for employers to cherry-pick other ways to reduce stress, encourage healthy habits, and promote bonding (think free healthy food and team-wide step challenges).
Aside from the fact that mental health services are often underused due to societal stigma, a mental-counseling-first approach fell into the trap of confusing health and well-being. Turning to a psychiatrist or psychologist for anything and everything that touches on the broader spectrum of mental well-being is like rushing to the ER for a minor bruise. People need more than just reactive access to a therapist in times of mental health distress. What about all the other areas that positively impact the mind, body, and spirit?
Thus, employers should now turn to more holistic employee benefits that address areas such as positive thinking, burnout prevention, sleep improvement, and even weight loss, as well as other factors related to family (dealing with parents, kids, significant others, and so on).
Embrace the concept of work-life integration
More people are working remotely. Working hours have become more fluid. These new realities have given rise to a new buzzword—work-life integration–which describes better synergy with all the areas that define life: one’s job, family, community involvement, and personal well-being. Rather than unrealistically drawing boundaries between work time and personal time, professionals can handle work tasks at times that best suit them. It’s more about harmony than balance.
Modern approaches to employee support allow employees to be authentic to their own lives within this new environment. They recognize that mental well-being is a set of interconnected building blocks, one influencing the other, all adding to a holistic state of being in a changed world.
The assumption used to be that it was up to the employee to figure out work-life balance. But in the post-pandemic environment, it falls on the employer to support employees in novel ways which cover many factors but, together, foster better work-life integration.
Wellness is more than a trend
Even before the pandemic, the importance of mental health was an elephant in the room few wanted to acknowledge due to stigma and the perceived lack of available resources for proactive, comprehensive support.
We shouldn’t look at the pandemic as a crisis demanding better attention to employee mental well-being (eventually subsiding after the pandemic), but as a signal of what companies should be doing. A stronger focus on emotional well-being is both a moral imperative and critical strategy to deliver business results. It is simply the right thing to do, now and later.
As we are seeing today, employees want a different kind of support—more personalized, more far-reaching, more proactive and preventative—that encompasses the bigger picture of their overall well-being and targets all of life’s challenges. The four above points show that companies have it within their power to provide this solution.
Ravi Swaminathan is a cofounder and the CEO of TaskHuman, a real-time digital coaching platform that connects each employee, individually, with a global network of coaches over video call in nearly 1,000 topics of daily work and personal life.