This year, we’ve seen a shift out of the pandemic and into a time of economic uncertainty. These shifts, this continued uncertainty, poses challenges for both leaders and their teams. Through these trying times, employees continue to be expected to show up, no matter the conditions of the world around them—and it’s taking a toll. Today, it’s more critical than ever before for employers to provide effective mental health support to their people.
The need for support is so pressing that in October of 2022, the U.S. Surgeon General released a first ever framework outlining policies, processes and practices to support mental health and well-being in the workplace. This framework is backed by recent findings such as Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, which notes that 84% of adults say their workplace conditions have contributed to at least one mental health challenge.
Beyond the Surgeon General’s recommendations, The Harris Poll conducted a survey of 950 employed adults in the US to better understand how employees are faring and whether or not companies are supporting them. The study showed that 52% of employed Americans believe their employer is not doing enough to support their mental health amidst global crises and only 29% of employed Americans said that their employer has increased their mental health support due to the potential stress related to current global events. A more recent report from Wakefield, conducted in February of 2023, indicates that two in three (67%) of employed Americans say they don’t always feel appreciated for their contributions at work; adding more fuel to the fire.
This data combined, with the latest recommendation from the US Surgeon General, should offer more than enough evidence to prioritize mental health support at work. Below are three steps to help your company get there that tie into the Surgeon General’s Essentials to support workplaces as engines of well-being: Protection from Harm, Connection & Community, Opportunity for Growth, Worker Voice and Equity, Mattering at Work, and Work-Life Harmony.
Lead by example to ensure protection from harm
As a leader, you have a highly visible platform to inspire your employees. Don’t be hesitant to show them how to prioritize their mental health with your own anecdotes. During Mental Health Awareness Month, my co-founder Taylor and I used our all-hands meeting to discuss our own mental health struggles. Taylor shared that he planned to take a mental health day the week after since he’d been feeling burnt out. Remember, vulnerability is strength. By opening up to our employees, Taylor led the way towards a safer, more authentic workplace for our team. This moment also aligns closely with the Surgeon General’s recommendation for protection from harm. By sharing his experience with mental health, Taylor opened the floor for others to share as well, creating an environment of psychological safety—a critical foundation for ensuring workplace mental health and well-being that ties back to the human need for safety and security.
The reality is that leading like Taylor not only sets an example for your whole organization, but for business leaders and managers specifically. Employees aren’t the only ones who are feeling burnt out and stressed following so many negative global events. Leaders need support too. Much like when the flight attendant tells you to fasten your oxygen mask before helping others, the same thinking can be applied to leading a team—if you’re not taking steps to care for your own mental health, you can’t help others take care of theirs.
Walk the walk to encourage work-life harmony
We’ve all heard the saying that actions speak louder than words. Do this by getting real with mental health days. “Getting real” means officially including mental health days within your policy and separating them from sick time. Don’t just update your policy, but make an effort to reduce stigma around taking these days too. Be like Taylor, who set an example by taking one himself. By giving employees autonomy over when and how they do their work, you can create an environment that fosters work-life harmony. This balance is especially valuable when employees are already under stress from mental health and the turmoil of global events. Whether it’s PTO, sick time, or mental health days, don’t ask or require employees to explain how they’re spending their time off. Do you really need to know?
As someone who has experienced it myself, a strong bout of burnout feels utterly paralyzing. To get back in motion, you need support from teammates and managers. It shouldn’t be stigmatized, but rather deeply woven into your company culture. Beyond interpersonal support, external resources should absolutely be incorporated into your benefits package. Benefits like talk therapy subscriptions and access to therapists or live coaches are a great way to provide employees with support throughout their time working with you. Spending money on a more robust benefits plan with mental health offerings will keep your employees happier, meaning they’re more likely to stick around.
Communicate and educate to create connection and community
Real change starts with clear communication. Show employees that you hear their concerns about mental health. The Harris Poll’s data also shows that 93% of employed Americans spend time thinking about current global events, which means your employees likely are too. Take time to have open conversations with your people and be ready to respond to feedback. Fostering positive social interactions like this also ties back to the Surgeon General’s essential of “Connection & Community.” Social support and belonging are two essential human needs and the workplace plays a valuable role in ensuring that those are met, it is after all where we spend our time five days a week.
After these check-ins, take the time to provide mental health education. While it’s becoming more mainstream, a lot of people don’t have the vocabulary or awareness to understand what’s happening to them. Providing resources as an employer helps people help themselves. Host training sessions with coaches and mental health experts, invite guest speakers, and even simply encourage more informal internal discussions where coworkers check in on one another.
According to 2022 data from Mental Health America, over half of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, totaling over 27 million adults in the U.S. That’s a lot of people going untreated. This mental health crisis doesn’t just stop during work hours. As an employer and a leader you have a responsibility to care for your people. Over two-thirds of employed Americans (68%) also feel that employers should offer extra mental health benefits to their employees due to potential stress related to current global events. We’ve been bombarded by negative news left and right, but it’s never too late to start taking action. Be vulnerable, open up conversations, provide education and most importantly, show that you care. In a world of chaos, it’s the least we can do.