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The workplace has never had a reputation for being the best place to spend a bad day, but maybe it’s time for that to change. After all, so many aspects of our lives — our sleep cycles, our commutes, our social circles, and more — are tied to our workplaces. If workplace stress can be the top cause of mental health issues, perhaps it’s also the best place to improve and support employees’ mental health.
Mental health in the workplace
Much like a virus, mental health in the workplace is contagious. It’s possible for employees, particularly managers, to “spread” emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral patterns to their coworkers. This is because, as social creatures, humans are designed to quickly attune to one another’s emotional state.
The good news is that it’s also possible to pick up on a good emotional state — or in other words, catch a good culture. That’s why supporting employee mental health is critical to the growth, productivity, and innovation of your workplace.
Why is it good to support employees' mental health?
Having policies in place to support employees mental health benefits both your work environment and your bottom line. Here are some reasons you may want to prioritize and promote workplace mental health:
Return on investment
According to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), the costs of depression, anxiety, and the resulting lost revenue total nearly $1 trillion dollars. That’s a fairly intimidating figure. But it’s not all bad news. The WHO also found that there is nearly a 4x return on investment on money spent on mental health care. That’s equivalent to $4 for every dollar spent on treating mental well-being.
In a July 2021 study, BetterUp surveyed a representative sample of 1,693 US workers, asking them “How often does your performance at work suffer due to challenges with anxiety, stress, or other performance-related mental health issues?” One in four respondents said that their work was impacted on a weekly basis. Despite the myth that pressure leads to increased performance, it’s becoming more understood that stress mostly just begets more stress. People aren’t pressured into doing their best work — they’re empowered.
Employee wellness isn’t just tied to performance. In BetterUp’s review of member data, our insights team found that supporting employee well-being had a significant impact on retention. When people, namely women and parents, focus on their well-being, their intent to stay at their jobs rises by 31% and 13% respectively.
Stress and anxiety negatively impact creativity and innovation. When people are faced with mental health challenges, they have to exert more effort to do creative work. Conversely, when people report that they’re struggling “not at all” with mental health, creative work takes 23% less effort.
6 ways to support your employees’ mental health
The benefits of supporting employee mental health are well established — but where do you start? Here are six steps you can take to promote well-being at work:
1. Provide mental health resources like EAPs and coaching
Employee assistance programs, or EAPs, are employee benefits programs designed to help employees resolve issues that could impact their life. The idea is to address personal issues before they interfere with work performance. While EAPs are helpful — and companies that offer them experience significantly less absenteeism and workplace distress — they are painfully underutilized. Multiple studies place EAP usage at below 10%.
Programs like BetterUp coaching, however, are able to provide personal and professional support with a similar investment, but much higher utilization. BetterUp’s innovative Whole Person Model measures mindsets, behaviors, and outcomes, emphasizing behaviors that can be tracked and developed over time. Our research has found that coaching can help lay a foundation for mental wellness by improving self-understanding.
2. Offer mental health training
Access to therapy and mental health services is not enough. Even if you provide coverage for mental and behavioral health concerns, what employees request the most is training on where to go and how to use these resources. Teach managers signs of depression, anxiety, and other common mental health conditions and how to intervene in an appropriate way. Having an open line of communication with their manager can reduce the stress of not wanting team members to “find out” about what they’re going through.
3. Train managers on what to do if they see signs of emotional distress
The “old school” method of dealing with mental health at work is to pretend it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t work anymore. People need to be able to bring their whole selves to work, and they thrive when they do. In contrast, pretending to be okay makes people about 32% less likely to love their jobs.
We can help by training managers to offer support to employees that may not be feeling their best. Teach them to listen without judgement and offer next steps to support them. This could be signing off on a mental health day, offering flexible work hours, giving more time on a project, a referral to an EAP, or starting a conversation with human resources to explore options.
4. Include mental health coverage as part of the health care plan
Be sure that your health insurance coverage offers adequate support for mental health care. Consider covering both mental health-related and alternative care, such as massage therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractors. Many alternative treatments have mental health as well as physical benefits.
5. Use communication to reduce stigma
Be open about conversations regarding well-being and mental health. You don’t have to divulge every aspect of your personal life. Sharing a simple “I feel overwhelmed” or “I’m having a rough day” can be wonderfully affirming. Being able to be honest with your managers, colleagues, and teams boosts camaraderie, retention, and even productivity. Let them know it’s okay to have an off day.
6. Promote well-being as part of the company culture
Celebrate your team’s healthy self-care habits. Encourage walking meetings, host water challenges, and remind them of wellness or lifestyle perks included in their benefits package. Demonstrate work-life balance and take time out for your own mental health. Make sure your team knows that you value their well-being as much as their productivity, and emphasize that they don’t have to sacrifice their mental health for performance.
Mental fitness, not mental health
If there’s one silver lining from the uncertainty of the last two years, it’s the increased attention given to support employee mental health. The conversation about well-being is an important one. But, in order to thrive, it’s not enough just to treat mental illness. We have to get ahead of stress, anxiety, and depression by emphasizing the importance of mental fitness. Cultivating our awareness of how we think, behave, and feel gives us more than an extra edge at work. It gives us the building blocks to live empowered, more fulfilling lives.
BetterUp Staff Writer