Mental health in the workplace: why is it important and what support is available?

May 21, 2021 - 21 min read

Mental health in the workplace is top of mind for everyone these days. While a lot has changed about what we understand about mental health at work, and how widespread poor mental health is, it's worth taking a look at the basics.

sad-man-looking-down-mental-health-in-the-workplace

Jump to section

What is mental health?

Work-related risk factors that can harm mental health

How can mental health issues affect my job?

Ways to promote mental health in the workplace

Why should companies worry about mental health?

Let’s redefine mental health in the workplace

Supporting mental health in the workplace is no longer a nice-to-have but a necessity. 

Companies would be remiss to underestimate the importance of discussing mental health at work. Creating wellness solutions to help their employees thrive is the first step.

Similarly, employees can also encourage their employers to offer mental health programs at work.

It’s no secret that work-related risk factors can negatively affect mental health. But before we dive into workplace suggestions to combat these factors, let’s explore the exact meaning of mental health. 

We’ll also take a look at how two companies have improved employee performance since implementing mental health policies.

What is mental health?

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual can cope with everyday stressors, work productively, reach his or her full potential, and contribute to their community.

Mental health, along with physical health and social well-being, is an essential component of overall health. 

It’s also important to point out that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. You can have poor mental health without having an illness and likewise you can have good mental health with a mental illness.

We believe mental health and human performance are not two separate pursuits but rather two parts of the same equation. Combined, they are what make humans flourish. 

The relationship between body and mind is an essential component of mental health. Together, they make up our internal equilibrium.

In today’s world, employee mental health must be a top priority for businesses looking to hire high-performing employees.

To summarize, the five key takeaways on mental health are:

  • Mental health is more than the absence of mental illness
  • You can’t have physical health without mental health
  • Mental health aids in coping with stress
  • Human performance and mental health go hand in hand 
  • Workplace wellness must be a top priority

key takeaways on mental health

The importance of discussing mental health

The days of not talking about mental health are gone. Or, at least they should be. Positive mental health is important because it allows us to cope with challenges, even good ones, and setbacks in our lives, both at work and at home.

Having good mental health gives us the ability to recognize, express, and regulate our emotions. It allows us to empathize with others and enables us to have basic cognitive and social skills. 

Positive mental health at work helps us cope with changing roles and responsibilities. Not to mention difficult challenges. It helps us flourish in our roles, manage stress, and boost our resilience. Ultimately, it allows us to reach our highest potential.

reasons to take care of your mental health

Work-related risk factors that can harm mental health

Employee mental health can be negatively affected in the workplace due to: 

Inadequate health and safety policies

Workplace health and safety policies aim to protect the well-being of employees, visitors, and customers. They also protect employers. 

For instance, a general policy may include consulting with employees on day-to-day health issues or demonstrating a commitment to safe working conditions. Are employees working with hazardous materials or poorly maintained equipment? Is the workplace over-crowded, poorly lit or ventilated, or unsanitary? Are workplace accidents common? Have employee safety complaints or concerns gone unanswered? 

Workplaces with poor health and safety policies may decrease employee mental health, lose staff, risk prosecution, and reduce profitability.

Poor communication and management practices

Kind and engaging communication and management practices are the mark of a good manager-employee relationship. 

Poor communication and practices, on the other hand, create strain on the relationship, create poor mental health, and increase workplace stress.

Low levels of support for employees

Managers who don’t help remove obstacles or share resources with employees can contribute to employees feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated. For instance, rather than expecting employees to figure out tasks they’re unclear about, managers should demonstrate how to complete those tasks and stay available for questions. 

Performance pressure

The expectations of employees to constantly perform at peak levels puts unreasonable pressure on them. It leads to an increase in workload and work hours, added stress, and emotional exhaustion.

Job insecurity

Job losses due to COVID-19 became major stressors for employees in 2020. The fear of not being able to pay bills or care for families carries a significant threat to our mental well-being.

Ready to take your leaders to the next level? Try a demo of BetterUp.

How can mental health issues affect my job?

When you feel good mentally and emotionally, you approach your job with good mental health. You’re adaptable, flexible, and resilient. You are able to handle challenges. Your contributions to your team are meaningful, and you thrive in your personal and professional life. 

But when you’re struggling with poor mental health at work, even if it isn’t extreme, it negatively affects your job in many ways.

consequences of having mental health issues while working

Here are five consequences of poor mental health in the workplace: 

  1. Engagement with one's work. Poor mental health leads to demotivation and lack of focus. When we have mental health issues, our minds wander or fixate on our problems, making it difficult to regulate our thoughts and emotions.
  2. Productivity and job performance. High performance is mental strength in motion. When we don’t feel good, accessing the behavioral skills that foster creativity and resilience is challenging. Without these skills, we don’t have the psychological resources to perform well at our jobs.
  3. Physical capability and daily functioning. From social anxiety to a reduction in cognitive performance and working memory, poor mental health takes a major toll on your daily living and physical capability. You feel depleted.
  4. Communication. It’s difficult to communicate well when we’re emotionally not feeling well. Poor mental health may lead to misinterpreting or over-reacting to colleagues. It may come across as speaking with a passive-aggressive tone, being a poor listener, or having a negative attitude.
  5. Poor decision-making. Poor mental health can lead to a lack of impulse control, unhealthy thoughts, and poor decision-making. Poor decision-making may lead to missed meetings, showing up late, dropping commitments, or not adhering to company policies.

Sign up to receive the latest insights, articles, and resources from BetterUp.

Ways to promote mental health in the workplace

When it comes to promoting well-being at work, creating proactive options that help people improve and maintain their mental health day-to-day is key to helping employees flourish. In this section, we’ll discuss some proactive options to promote mental well-being at work, both as an employer, and as an employee.

ways to promote mental well-being at work

As an employer: 

The most vital action an employer can take is to offer resources for both broader mental health and those who need clinical services.

Making clinical services accessible is critical for employees experiencing mental illness. However, the majority of workers don’t need clinical care — they need mental health support.

Often during trying times, employees need help with coping skills, managing stress, and building up resilience. Strengthening their overall mental fitness is important for them to be both happy individuals, but also productive contributors to your team.

Below are six strategies employers can use to promote mental well-being at work:

  1. Employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP is a work-based program that traditionally assists employees with personal or work-related problems that may be hurting their job performance or well-being. 

An EAP is provided to employees at no cost and can assist with issues like relationship challenges, traumatic events (i.e., workplace violence), legal problems, wellness matters, and a broad range of other issues. 

Employees can access services online, via phone, video or email, or face-to-face.

  1. Relaxation spaces. Dedicated quiet spaces for relaxation activities give employees the opportunity for mid-day breaks to unwind and de-stress. Equally important is making it culturally acceptable to take breaks and use these spaces. Leaders and managers can set the tone.
  1. Mental health self-assessment tools available to all employees. Self-assessment tools provide questionnaires and tools to assess mental health concerns. 

These tools don’t provide a diagnosis but rather help explore if further assessment or resources would be beneficial to the employee. 

For instance, tools may include:

  • Mental health meter quiz
  • Mood assessment checklist
  • Work-life balance quiz
  • Assessing your current situation questionnaire 
  • Online alcohol and drug help center 
  • Online mental health check-up
  1. Free or subsidized clinical screenings for depression. Clinical screenings from mental health professionals that provide feedback and clinical referrals when appropriate. The effort of seeking evaluation and treatment can otherwise be a barrier.
  1. Free or subsidized mental well-being coaches. Coaching services from certified coaches to help employees navigate challenges and strengthen their mental fitness. 
  1. Health insurance with mental health benefits at no or low out-of-pocket costs. Provide free or inexpensive health care coverage for prescription medications and mental health counseling.

As an employee: 

To promote mental well-being at work, employees should encourage employers to offer stress management education and mental health programs that meet their needs and interests. 

Employees should also understand policies around how to take a mental health break from work in case the need arises. 

Additionally, here are six strategies employees can use to promote mental well-being at work:

  1. Take part in employer-sponsored programs and activities. Employees should take advantage of employer programs to learn skills and obtain the support they need.
  1. Share ups and downs with others. To help reduce the stigma around mental health, employees can share more of their own experiences with other co-workers when appropriate. Unless you feel very safe, this is more about sharing your humanness than getting into details — co-workers can’t substitute for mental health professionals.
  1. Practice coping skills during the workday. To cope with daily work stressors, employees can practice skills that promote healthier mindsets, relationships, and self-image. 

Coping tools may include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Healthy communication
  • Prioritization and focusing on one task at a time to avoid being overwhelmed
  • Using positive self-talk
  1. Practice self-care on lunch breaks. Daily lunch breaks are more than just opportunities to eat — they’re also the perfect time to practice self-care. 

Practicing self-care during lunch breaks may include:

  1. Take care of their physical health. Employees can set themselves up for mental health success by taking care of their physical health. This includes eating healthy meals, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep.
  1. Nurture relationships. Nurturing social connections at work is key to preventing social isolation and loneliness in the workplace.

Why should companies worry about mental health?

Poor mental health and emotional distress in the workplace are problematic for companies for a number of reasons. 

Poor mental health at work can result in:

  • Disengaged employees
  • Poor communication
  • High turnover
  • Safety liabilities 
  • Poor job performance
  • Low productivity
  • Poor decision-making 
  • Decreased profits 

Two companies that performed better after implementing mental health policies

Here are two stories of companies that have garnered awards for their successful mental health policies:

performance of 2 companies after implementing mental health policies

  1. Prudential Financial, Inc.

Prudential Financial, an insurance and financial services company, is a pioneer in health and wellness programs for its employees. 

Their mission is to destigmatize the issue of mental health in the workplace.

Prudential’s employee health strategy includes a behavioral health services team. This team offers training and referrals to help their employees and managers better manage their emotional and mental wellness. 

They also perform regular health risk assessments, which provide a wealth of data and have consistently proven the impact of their strategies.

Recently, they’ve introduced financial wellness programs to help employees protect against financial risks, manage day-to-day finances, and save for long-term goals. 

Financial wellness is actually connected to mental well-being. Financial issues and worries are a significant cause of personal and relationship stress that can contribute to poor mental well-being.

As a result, Prudential Financial has noticed that employees are:

  • More productive 
  • Less burdened by stress
  • Less susceptible to illness-related absences 
  • Better able to tackle challenges and opportunities at work

They’ve also noticed rates of absenteeism, financial stress, and risk factors for depression decline. 

  1. Certified Angus Beef, LLC

Certified Angus Beef, a beef company, is known for its preventive and holistic health approach. 

From seasoned employees to new staff to young families, they focus on providing a variety of programs that address each employee’s unique needs.

Their employee health strategy includes an onsite preventative care clinic that employees can access during office hours. They also provide personal wellness coaching, weight management solutions, and a dedicated phone line for medical care assistance (with telemedicine assistance for after work hours).

They also provide onsite consultations with: 

  • Financial advisors
  • Attorneys
  • Mental health professionals

As a result, Certified Angus Beef has seen the following improvements in their employees:

  • A reduction in disease risk
  • Enhanced quality of life
  • A healthy work-life balance 
  • Improved productivity 

They’ve also seen a rise in company trust, and the employee transitions required by COVID-19 have been more manageable.

Let’s redefine mental health in the workplace

Awareness of the full range of employee mental health experiences is the first step to supporting good mental health in the workplace. All employees benefit when companies support and promote mental health for those who are suffering and those who are just not thriving. 

Companies can lead by destigmatizing mental health as a topic and also taking a broader view of the company’s role. We can redefine mental health by focusing on solutions that help employees flourish personally and professionally, in addition to providing support and access for clinical care for those most in need. 

With understanding, creativity, and support, companies can provide the best mental health programs for their employees. 

At BetterUp, we provide personalized coaching and wellness care for businesses and individuals. Schedule a customized demo to find out more.



Published May 21, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

Read Next

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.