There has been much discussion of recent times about the challenges that workers are facing with layoffs, retirement savings losses, return to work policies, staffing deficiencies (see the “great resignation” and labor force shortages in many fields), family issues (increasing of the “sandwich generation”), pandemic-related issues, inflationary and consumer price concerns, etc. All of these are putting enormous pressure on the workforce, leading to increasing levels of stress and the related risk of anxiety, depression, and related psychological maladies. Employee mental health is a key concern and consideration for business and HR leaders today.
Employee mental health is a significant issue that companies increasingly should address. Mental health issues can have a range of negative impacts on employees, including reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and decreased job satisfaction. Additionally, untreated mental health problems can lead to more serious health issues and even contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
Framing the issue
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control defines job stress as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury.
There is a significant amount of research and data available that supports the notion that employee mental health is an issue. Here are some examples:
- Prevalence of mental health issues: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 22.8% of American adults experience mental illness in a given year, and mental health issues are the leading cause of disability worldwide. Further data from the American Heart Association found that 76% of U.S. employees report experiencing at least one issue that has affected their mental health, and 42% report having been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
- Impact on productivity: Mental health issues can have a significant impact on employee productivity. According to a study by the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. Other research has found that mental health issues can lead to increased absenteeism, presenteeism (being present at work but not fully productive), and turnover.
- Impact on physical health: Mental health issues can also have a negative impact on physical health. For example, chronic stress can lead to a range of health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.
- Cost to employers: Mental health issues can be costly for employers. Gallup has reported that 19% of employees rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor”, and they have nearly 12 days of unplanned absences annually vs. 2.5 days for all other workers. Generalized across the U.S. workforce, this missed work is estimated to cost the economy $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity.
- COVID-19 pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of mental health in the workplace, with many employees having reported increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic and related issues such as remote work and economic uncertainty.
Overall, the research and data available suggest that employee mental health is an issue that employers should prioritize in order to promote a healthier, more productive workforce. Understanding what creates the circumstances for exacerbated mental health issues is critical.
Drivers of mental health issues in the workplace
There are numerous factors that can contribute to mental health issues in the workplace. Some common causes include:
- Workload and job demands: Employees who are overworked or have high job demands may experience stress, burnout, and other mental health issues.
- Workplace culture: A negative or toxic workplace culture can contribute to mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and stress.
- Lack of support: Employees who feel unsupported by their managers or colleagues may experience mental health issues as a result.
- Discrimination and harassment: Discrimination and harassment based on factors such as race, gender, or sexual orientation can contribute to mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
- Job insecurity: Employees who feel uncertain about their job security may experience anxiety and stress.
- Organizational change: Changes such as restructuring or downsizing can lead to stress and anxiety among employees.
- Personal factors: Personal factors such as family problems, financial difficulties, and physical health issues can also contribute to mental health issues in the workplace.
It's important to note that mental health issues are often the result of multiple factors, and that individual experiences may vary. It's also worth noting that while work can contribute to mental health issues, work can also provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment and can be a protective factor against mental health problems. Employers should strive to create a work environment that promotes positive mental health and supports employees who may be struggling.
However, given recent events, a special focus on the impact of layoffs on employee mental health bears mention. Losing a job can lead to a range of emotional and psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem. In addition, layoffs can also lead to financial stress and insecurity, which can exacerbate mental health issues.
Layoffs in particular can impact employee mental health in a number of ways:
- Loss of identity and purpose: Losing a job can make individuals feel like they have lost a part of their identity and purpose. This can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
- Financial stress: Losing a job can create significant financial stress, which can further contribute to mental health issues. For example, individuals may worry about paying bills or meeting other financial obligations.
- Social isolation: Losing a job can lead to social isolation, as individuals may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their situation. This can further exacerbate mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
- Uncertainty and anxiety about the future: Losing a job can create uncertainty and anxiety about the future, which can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety.
In addition, workplace toxicity deserves a special call-out as a key source of stress and potential creator of mental health issues. Exacerbated by challenges such as those created by workforce reductions and the impact on workloads of those retained, and the widely reported (and widespread) resistance to return to work policies, employee frustration seems to be peaking. Increasing toxicity can result.
Toxicity in the workplace is a significant issue that can have a range of negative effects on employees and the organization as a whole. In fact, no fewer than 12 articles have appeared on the topic in the Harvard Business Review in the past two to three years alone. Toxicity in the workplace is generally defined as a negative or harmful work environment that is characterized by behaviors such as bullying, harassment, discrimination, and interpersonal conflicts, and can have devastating effects on both the workforce and the company.
Toxicity in the workplace can manifest in many different ways, including:
- Negative leadership: When leaders are negative, critical, or dismissive of their employees, it can contribute to low morale and a lack of motivation among employees.
- Micromanagement: When managers excessively control and monitor their employees, it can lead to a lack of trust and resentment among employees.
- Gossip and cliques: When employees form cliques or engage in gossip, it can lead to exclusion and a lack of cohesion among team members. Cliques can form interestingly enough, based upon different utilization rates of work from home.
- Harassment and discrimination: When employees experience harassment or discrimination based on factors such as race, gender, or sexual orientation, it can contribute to stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Toxicity in the workplace is unfortunately quite common. According to a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 1 in 5 employees left their jobs due to a toxic workplace environment. Additionally, a study reported in the Harvard Business Review found that toxic cultures cost U.S. companies almost $50 billion per year, and toxic culture was the single biggest predictor of attrition during the first six months of the “Great Resignation”.
It's clearly important for employers to be aware of the signs of toxicity in the workplace and take steps to address it.
So what can be done to address mental health challenges in the workplace?
To address employee mental health, companies should take a proactive approach. Here are some steps that companies can take to support their employees' mental health:
1. Provide mental health resources.
Companies should provide employees with resources such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), mental health hotlines, and access to mental health professionals. This can be offered through both the employee benefits function as well as the broader wellbeing offerings, such as those that include access to wellness coaching.
2. Foster a positive work culture.
A positive work culture that prioritizes open communication, work-life balance, and recognition of employee contributions can help to reduce stress and promote mental health. Tracking employee perceptions and feedback through listening programs can serve as early or leading indicators of issues at a department, function, or location level that can point to negative leadership and supervision practices and behaviors.
3. Encourage breaks and self-care.
Encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout the workday and provide resources such as mindfulness or meditation apps or self-care tips to help employees manage stress.
4. Train managers and HR professionals to recognize and address mental health concerns.
Provide training to managers on how to recognize signs of mental health issues, how to approach employees who may be struggling, and how to provide support and accommodations.
5. Offer flexibility.
Consider offering flexible work arrangements such as remote work, flexible schedules, or job sharing to help employees manage their mental health. Tailoring the work and workplace experience to the needs of individual performers is core to this proposition, and the establishment of flexible work policies can support the balance of work and personal requirements across the workforce.
6. Support laid-off employees.
Employers can take steps to support employees who have been impacted by layoffs, such as offering resources for mental health support, providing career counseling or job training, and maintaining open lines of communication to help ease anxiety about the future. By providing support during this challenging time, employers can help mitigate the negative impact of layoffs on employee mental health – both those impacted and those who remain on the payroll.
Managers play a critical role in supporting employee mental health in the workplace
As mentioned, managing the issue on the front line is key to the equation. Although there will likely be resistance to the perception that they are receiving training as therapists, the truth is that they need to be prepared to recognize, not treat impacted employees.
Here are some steps managers can take to prepare themselves to handle or respond to mental health issues with their employees:
1. Foster an open and supportive work environment.
Managers should foster an open and supportive work environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns about mental health without fear of stigma or retaliation. Regular check-ins should include questions about how they are feeling and where their need support.
2. Attend training on handling mental health issues.
Employers can provide managers with training on mental health issues, including how to recognize signs of distress, how to initiate conversations about mental health, and how to support employees who may be struggling.
3. Focus managers on how to integrate with the employee assistance program (EAP).
Employers can provide an EAP to employees, which can offer resources and support for mental health issues such as counseling and therapy. Managers should be trained and reminded how to interact with the EAP as a solution to challenged staffers.
4. Encourage self-care.
Managers should encourage employees to prioritize and access available programs and support for self-care activities such as exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep, which can help improve mental health.
5. Offer flexible work arrangements.
Employers can offer flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting or flexible schedules, which can help employees manage their mental health.
6. Provide reasonable accommodations.
Employers can provide reasonable accommodations, such as modified work schedules or job responsibilities, to employees with mental health issues who may need additional support. Policies and programs should be made clear to managers so that they know what they can offer to impacted employees, and if not, when to reach out to the HR team for support.
By taking steps to support employee mental health, companies can create a healthier, more productive workplace and demonstrate that they value their employees' well-being.
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