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4 ways to foster a workplace culture that champions mental health

Employees are expecting more support for their mental well-being and employers must respond to this demand if they hope to retain top talent, this psychologist says.

4 ways to foster a workplace culture that champions mental health
[Photo: Cesar La Rosa/Unsplash]

The mental health of American workers has spiraled as the global pandemic drags on. Research from the Conference Board released reveals that the vast majority of employees—nearly 80%—are worried about their mental health, with more than three-quarters citing stress and burnout as the biggest challenges.   

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One thing is clear in the midst of this disturbing news: Organizations must rethink their role in helping to safeguard the mental health of their employees. According to McKinsey & Company, the required shift in understanding that’s needed is nothing short of a “revolution.” As employees’ expectations rise concerning how their companies will support their mental health, employers must respond to this demand if they hope to retain top talent.

As a psychologist and coach, I’ve identified what I refer to as the “4 Cs” that can help organizations better serve the mental health needs of their employees: commitment, culture, care, and community.

Commitment 

To ensure the leadership team’s commitment to supporting employees’ mental health, employers must first fully grasp why this goal is important. While this arena may at first glance seem “touchy feely” to some managers, the fact is that failure to adequately address employee concerns about mental health issues may significantly impact an organization’s long-term talent development and retention.

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One 2021 study by the mental health platform Ginger shows that current employees consider mental health and wellness benefits to be “very important” when they look at a potential employment opportunity. This consideration may be particularly critical for organizations with millennial or Gen Z employees, as these cohorts say their mental health is their biggest priority, according to a report from PwC. 

If your organization needs a financial imperative, consider that corporate losses due to employee mental health concerns are significant, and failing to provide mental health and wellness benefits can be costly. Sapien Labs reports that in the United States: 

  • Major depressive disorders alone cost organizations between $31 billion and $51 billion yearly in lost productivity. 
  • An employee with depression costs an organization $10,000 in yearly health insurance, versus the average of $4,584. 
  • An employee with major depression is absent an average of 27 days per year. 
  • For every $1 invested yearly in prevention and intervention programs to support mental health, employers can save $2 to $4 on other expenses.  
  • Recruitment and rehiring costs an average of $4,000 per employee.

As you consider how much capital your organization is willing to invest to improve its support for employee mental health, keep in mind that implementing mental health strategies and offering wellness-related supports and services may require not only financial resources, but also organizational changes or staff allocation and training.  

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Culture

Employers must create an organizational culture that destigmatizes mental health issues, while normalizing and encouraging help-seeking behaviors. Changing the culture of any organization takes commitment, strategy, and consistent effort over an extended period of time. In order to understand how to effectively address the cultural shift, begin by assessing the current culture by asking the following questions:

  • What are employees’ most pressing mental health concerns?
  • How comfortable are employees expressing their mental health concerns to their colleagues and managers?
  • How much do employees know about the company’s mental health benefits and services?
  • Do employees feel that their managers are able to understand and support their mental health concerns within the working team?
  • What mental health related resources are employees using the most? Which services and benefits do they find most helpful?

The assessment should create a baseline for management’s understanding of their employees’ level of mental health concerns. These findings can then inform decisions about changes or additions to employee mental health offerings and benefits, keeping in mind that mental health support is not one-size-fits-all, and help-seeking attitudes and behaviors around mental health vary by gender, age, and industry.   

Care

Next, an organization must consider what types of support would be most effective when it comes to prevention and intervention. 

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Preventive care measures should include talent management, which requires an understanding of job design, the team experience, and the work climate, as well as how employees are managed. As Jen Fisher points out in Harvard Business Review, managers can positively impact employee mental health if they are trained to establish work expectations and use supervisory styles that are likely to prevent employee burnout.   

Evaluate current offerings and their effectiveness or utilization before adding new services. For example, a company may provide mental health staff onsite or dedicate a facility to wellness practices such as yoga or meditation—but it’s critical to understand the feasibility, cost, and estimated utilization of these services. By conducting a baseline assessment of the organization’s culture as described above, data can drive these decisions.

Also, be sure to review your mental health benefits and managerial support. What does company support look like for employees who have taken time off due to mental health concerns and are returning to work? Widely offered benefits such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), mental health insurance benefits, and medical leave and return policies are in place for most organizations, but employees may not be well informed about them. HR Technologist reported that while EAPs are effective, their utilization by employees has been very low. With this in mind, organizations should regularly assess their care tools, and continue to adjust and optimize their financial investment in their mental health offerings accordingly.

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Community

As Lori Goler and her coauthors note in Harvard Business Review, one of the key factors in helping employees mitigate stress is ensuring that they have a sense of workplace community and connection. So how can an organization best strengthen its community environment and become a place where people across the organization experience compassion, care, and concern? It begins with leadership.

Gallup research shows that managers have a direct, daily impact on creating a sense of community for their team. Leaders have a responsibility to model authentic caring and offer a psychologically safe space for team members to share professional or personal concerns. When an organization goes beyond paying lip service to care and concern, instead actually implementing practices that are aligned with this message, it bolsters a sense of workplace community. A recent example that made the news was when LinkedIn provided all of its employees with one week off so they could recover from pandemic-induced burnout.

Is it worth championing the mental health of your employees? If your vision of the future includes retaining your workforce, then the answer is clearly yes. With the pandemic not yet over, employees continue to grapple with their commitment to work, their relationship with their organization, and what it takes to maintain their professional and personal equilibrium. At this tipping point in our collective well-being, employers that embrace and support their employees’ mental health will emerge the winners in the talent wars.


Julie Lee, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, associate dean at Brown University, and behavioral health consultant to startups and other organizations.


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