Data show fears of backlash still keep workers on the job

March 30, 2022 - 12 min read

Employees Fear Taking Time Off for Mental Health

In December of last year, the surgeon general of the United States issued a stark warning that young people are facing a devastating mental health crisis. In the 53-page report, it was noted that globally, anxiety and depression have doubled during the pandemic. Worldwide, nearly 1 billion people are living with a mental health disorder. 

Despite the prevalence and increased public conversation on mental health issues, for many, there is still a stigma, prejudice, and discrimination — especially when it comes to mental health in the workplace.

In many cultures, speaking about one’s mental or emotional health issues is strictly taboo. Families often encourage the affected person to ignore or work through their problems for fear of bringing shame upon themselves and others. This can be especially difficult for working immigrants who often experience trauma premigration, during migration, and postmigration

We wanted to understand more about how attitudes about mental health are affecting workers in different parts of the globe. In December of 2021, BetterUp Labs collected data from 1421 full-time working adults in the UK. BetterUp’s Khoa Le Nguyen, an applied behavioral scientist, analyzed the data and discovered that struggling with mental health is common, yet the shame and stigma that surround these issues persist.

What the data reveals about attitudes toward mental health in the workplace

The data revealed that a significant number of UK employees are experiencing some sort of mental health issue. 26% of respondents reported having – or having had – a diagnosed, ongoing mental health illness/condition. 30% of women reported struggling with a mental health issue while 21% of men reported the same. This is in line with the numbers we see here in the US. According to Johns Hopkins, 26% of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition

Despite the prevalence of these issues, the survey revealed that employees are afraid to take time off due to mental health and hide their reasons from their employers. A whopping 71% of respondents reported pushing through a difficult mental health struggle to avoid taking time off work in the past three months (compared to 59% for a physical health struggle).

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Viewing this data through the lens of gender, we found women are more likely (80%) than men (59%)  to “push through” their mental health struggles. One reason could be the lingering gender discrimination and inequality women still wrestle with in the workplace. Many women feel that they need to hide their mental and physical health issues for fear of being stereotyped as weaker or less capable than their male counterparts. This is dangerous territory as delaying the necessary rest or treatment can make mental health issues more severe. 

We also noticed that mental health struggles seem to decrease by age. Similar studies support this observation. Despite physical and cognitive decline, indicators of mental health don’t seem to follow the same linear progression and actually improve with age. Qualities like resilience and optimism grow as we gain life experience, increasing sharply between the ages of 55-64

Younger people are more likely to push through mental health struggles and avoid taking time off. One reason for this may be that they are early in their careers and feel more pressure to prove themselves to their employers. Young people may also feel less job security or have less time off available to them. 

Only 28% of our survey respondents took at least a day off work due to mental health issues in the same period. It’s worth noting the apparent contradiction between these two sets of findings. Women and younger people were both more likely to have pushed through a mental health struggle and more likely to have taken a day off due to mental health issues. What this points to is that both groups may be more likely to have mental health struggles. It also may suggest that “pushing through” is an ineffective strategy for dealing with mental health issues over a longer-term. 

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More women (32%) than men (23%) report having taken time off. One reason for this discrepancy may be the societal pressure men feel to hide any perceived physical or mental weaknesses from others. Research shows that men tend to have an even harder time admitting they need help.

We also see that a larger proportion of younger people reported taking time off due to mental health in the past 3 months compared to older people. A greater proportion of Generation Z struggle with pandemic-related mental health issues. This may be influencing the fact that they are far more open to sharing, discussing, and reporting these issues

Among those who took a day off due to mental health issues, 55% of people said that they made up a different excuse (e.g. physical illness). Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health drives many to hide the truth and blame physical health issues when they need to take time off. Many fear that if these issues were known they would be directly or indirectly penalized by their employers. This fear and shame can be so potent that, in the United States at least, many even hide these issues from their physicians.

How organizations can support employees struggling with mental health issues

While workplace issues can be among the top causes of mental distress, companies can also be supportive partners that help the workforce manage their mental health. This holds many benefits for the organization as well — companies that invest in employee well-being see lower retention, increased productivity, and greater innovation.

Here are a few ways organizations can support their employees:

1. Train managers on how to identify and deal with mental health issues

Frontline managers are in the best position to quickly spot issues and encourage employees to seek the necessary support. In fact, 33.5% of employees said that they would take their mental health issues to a manager or supervisor. Your frontline managers are on the frontline of trying to respond to an array of mental health needs while holding their teams together and driving performance. Especially in the hybrid world, they often don’t have a choice.

Provide training to your managers about how to identify the warning signs that an employee may be struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, and educate them on the resources your organization has available for employees. Empathetic, inclusive managers are skilled at building trust and keeping the lines of communication open so employees can alert them of potential issues before they spiral out of control.

2. Provide accessible mental health resources and coaching

There is a wide range of resources organizations can provide that can address their employee’s mental health needs. The key is to ensure that employees are educated about which benefits are offered, how to access them, and what will be most effective for their current situation.  Coaching is a resource that has been proven to help employees build the skills they need to effectively manage stress, reduce burnout, and build resilience. 

3. Invest in a culture of openness and psychological safety

One of the greatest threats standing in the way of employees getting the help they need is the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. If people don’t feel comfortable addressing these issues, it’s nearly impossible for positive steps to be taken. If you're a manager, normalize taking a mental health day by ... taking a mental health day and calling it that. 

Build a culture of open communication and psychological safety. Prioritize developing inclusive leadership skills across leaders of all levels in the organization. Set expectations high for managers to create an environment of psychological safety and belonging in their teams.

When employees feel psychologically safe, they are willing to share their struggles and open themselves up to support from others. It takes concentrated and sustained effort to build and maintain an environment of psychological safety, but the juice is worth the squeeze. Research shows teams high in psychological safety are the highest performing and most innovative.

4. Promote mental fitness

All too often, mental health is only discussed when it is poor or lacking. But just like how improving our physical fitness can help us recover faster and heal from injury, mental fitness can help us deal with emotional setbacks and trauma and maintain greater well-being. One of the key ways to build mental fitness is to invest in Inner Work®, the practice of looking inward to our authentic selves and experiences and making space for that which stirs our passion, creativity, and innovation. Consider implementing one or more Inner Work® days for your organization each year. You can find some direction on how to do this here — our team would be happy to help you get started.

If there is one positive thing that has come out of the turmoil and uncertainty of the last two years, it’s the increased awareness of and support given to mental health issues. People are slowly feeling more confident bringing these topics into the limelight for honest and open discussion. But clearly, more work needs to be done. Employees shouldn’t feel that attending to their mental health will come with retribution. Organizations should make it a priority to ensure their workforce feels supported without judgment. 

When companies and individuals can address mental health transparently and proactively, both individuals and the organization will benefit. Fortunately, there are more resources than ever before at their disposal to do this.

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Published March 30, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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