Did you know that “poor mental health was estimated to cost the world economy approximately $2·5 trillion per year in poor health and reduced productivity in 2010, a cost projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030”, according to a publication by the Lancet Global Health.

Mental health is such an important issue for our society and, more importantly, it affects each and every one of us. It is estimated that one in four people worldwide will experience mental illness over the course of their lives. So why do we need to talk about Mental Health at Work? Because this is where we spend a large portion of our lives and we deserve to feel safe and supported in that space.

It’s no secret that the workplace is a difficult place to be. With economic uncertainty, high unemployment rates, and an endless list of initiatives to complete, it can feel like every day holds only struggle. And this struggle takes its toll on people’s mental health – with many workers reporting that they are feeling stressed or depressed at work. 

The issue has become so prevalent that experts have coined the term “presenteeism” to refer to those who show up for work but are not fully engaged because their minds are elsewhere. This impacts both productivity (because people aren’t focusing) and retention (a person may take another job where they feel more fulfilled).

What can we do about this? How do we bring these issues out into the open in a way that is productive and helpful? And what does this mean for those who are not only struggling themselves but also trying to support their colleagues?

Why is it important to talk about mental health at work?

It’s a conversation that needs to take place everywhere, but especially at work. A study by Willis PMI Group showed that only 35% of workers had talked with their manager about a mental health problem. This is scary because it means that employees are not disclosing mental health problems at work, which can have a negative impact on their performance. In another report, it was stated that “mental ill-health was estimated to cost UK employers £26 billion per year in lost output”. A big part of this loss is due to presenteeism and reduced productivity.

Although we may not be able to control the economic and political factors that affect our lives, we can control how much we talk about mental health. When talking about mental health at work, it’s important to keep in mind that different people respond differently. 

Some prefer a more serious conversation while others don’t like such “heavy” talk. And it’s also important to note that the method of communication might influence how open your colleagues are.

Mental Illness is a Challenge

 

It’s not easy. The truth is that mental illness can be frustrating to deal with, especially when there are no obvious physical symptoms present. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That person sitting next to you who seems perfectly fine may actually be struggling with serious mental health concerns that they are unable to talk about so their impulse is to put a brave face on and hope that things get better soon.

How employees experience mental health challenges is often impacted by their workplace culture. Some places can be very open and supportive, creating a space where people feel comfortable bringing up their mental health concerns and there is no judgment or stigma attached to doing so.

In other workplaces employees may not feel that they have the freedom to talk openly about it for fear of being judged or misunderstood by those around them. And that includes colleagues, management, and even HR.

According to a study by Qualtrix and Mind Share partners, there are different ways employees experience mental health challenges:

Increased burnout. In the US, the number of employees that have experienced burnout reached 56%. Newer generations are at an even higher risk, with Generation Z being the most likely respondents to experience burnout.  

This is most likely due to the lack of tools and flexibility they’ve been given to deal with the increasing pressure and stressors in their work lives. The need for managers and HR professionals to be more aware and do more has become even greater as a result.

Increased stress, anxiety and depression. This is another challenge that has affected a greater percentage of employees. There are various factors to consider: the workplace culture, physical environment, and freedom or lack thereof to express your opinions and speak your mind. 

All these factors play a huge role in how employees experience stress and anxiety at work.  In the US, the study shows that “Executive (82%) and C-level (78%) respondents were more likely to report at least one mental health symptom, compared to managers (71%) and indivRobert Duffidual contributors (71%)”.

Racial Injustice and Inclusion Implications. African Americans and Latinx individuals are more likely to experience mental health challenges at work, most likely due to their greater exposure to discrimination on a day-to-day basis.

This issue is linked closely with the topic of diversity and inclusion – as it has far-reaching implications on how inclusive organizations are or aren’t. LGBT+ and other minorities are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health challenges and this is coming from the lack of respect and inclusion they receive.

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The company’s Role in Employee Mental Health

It’s important for workplaces to create an environment where employees feel safe bringing up their mental health concerns. This starts by promoting supportive work cultures and offering access and education on any available resources. When you make mental health a priority, you reduce the stigma surrounding it.

Attitude is everything.

Employee wellness should be part of your company’s DNA—not something that gets tacked on at the end of your list of priorities. If you are struggling with how to prioritize it among other projects, just remember this: Every conversation about mental health matters. 

When employees feel heard, supported, and encouraged to open up about their challenges, they will have an easier time accessing resources when they need them. It also sends a strong message that you care about employees’ well being and want to help them achieve these goals no matter what additional responsibilities or stressors they might be dealing with.

It’s clear that more needs to be done. The workplace culture of silence, judgment, and lack of understanding have a direct impact on how employees experience mental health challenges at work.

The factors identified above need to be addressed – including management styles, treatment of diversity and inclusion initiatives, amount of freedom employees have in choosing what tasks they can work on, etc.  

How can employers deal with mental health issues?

Employees are the backbone of any organization. After all, without them, employers would not be able to conduct business. That’s why it is important that employers do everything they can to make sure their employees are getting what they need. And that begins with addressing mental health. Here’s what they can do:

  • Establish a culture of empathy and kindness. One of the best ways to encourage openness and reduce stigma is through kindness. If managers and other people in the company are kind and understanding, it will make employees more comfortable sharing their struggles. The workplace can benefit from managers who are empathic, compassionate, and understanding of their employees’ mental health concerns.

 

  • Offer resources and support. Empower your employees with knowledge about mental health resources available in your company and/or community. Educate them on different treatment options including therapies, counseling, medication management, etc instead of sticking to one treatment plan. 

Provide information about various types of therapies (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Meditation, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), etc) and encourage self-help efforts.

 

  • EY for instance provides a list of resources in their Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Employees can use this type of program if they are not feeling well mentally. It’s a great way to encourage people to reach out when they need help. This will also ensure that employees do not use sick days for mental health issues and make sure you provide short-term disability insurance in case of extended leaves for recovery.

 

  • Facilitate work/life balance. Promoting a more sustainable approach to work is a must. Work stress has a significant impact on well-being, especially when it is continuous. Employees should be encouraged to take breaks throughout the day such as going for a walk or participating in any other physical activities they enjoy. 

 

They should also have access to flexible working hours since this will enable them to prioritize their work and personal life more effectively. These changes can improve employees’ moods and overall performance while creating a less stressful work environment for everyone involved.

Mental Health Matters…

Employers must examine their workplace culture by doing an honest self-reflection of the existing environment. They should consider how employees are influenced through different microaggressions and whether they’re part of the problem or part of the solution. It’s important that employers create a work environment that promotes kindness, understanding, empathy, consideration for others, fairness, honesty, integrity, responsibility, professionalism, etc.

Mental health is an issue that affects everyone in one way or another. The effects can be devastating if not addressed quickly enough so it’s necessary to have these conversations with your employees more often.

Our thoughts go out to all those who have been struggling with various mental health issues – we hope you get better soon.