Life is pretty stressful for most of us. Although that might not stand to change any time soon, there are tried and tested ways in which employers can help significantly ease the mental health burden on their employees.
A study by the WHO estimates depression, anxiety, burnout and other mental health conditions costs the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. And that research was conducted long before any global pandemic! Today, the strain people are under is deeply worrying. Moreover, it’s ubiquitous - affecting practically all of us.
So, what’s to blame? And how do we buffer ourselves against stress? Robust mental wellbeing is the result of an intricate marriage of different factors, both external and internal. How well someone copes with the stresses of life is undoubtedly influenced by many things - from an individual's past traumas and upbringing; to their state of physical, nutritional and hormonal health; to the impact of personal or global current affairs such as war or a pandemic. The list is long, and nuanced.
Although the full mental health burden is clearly not solely caused by people’s jobs, a healthy workplace certainly plays a significant part in contributing to an individual's mental wellbeing. Someone’s job is often central to their life. The workplace is, after all, where they spend a substantial amount of their day - whether virtually or physically.
Employee wellbeing programmes and a dedicated focus on mental health in the workplace is no longer something that’s ‘nice to have’ in a company. It’s a necessity, and an urgent one at that.
So, what strategies can companies effectively implement to meet their employees' mental health needs?
The 7 pillars that support employee wellbeing
Although there are many factors that contribute to improved mental health at the workplace, there are several core aspects that employers in any industry can actively address. Let's call these the pillars of support. An employer should strive to strengthen all of these fundamental pillars of support, as each is proven to boost employee wellbeing.
1. Research & recognize mental health needs
The first step, before taking any action, should be to develop a basic understanding of the general global state of mental health in the workplace. It’s crucial to grasp how profound and widespread the employee mental health burden is in order to make effective changes. Then, learn to identify the wellbeing needs in your own organization.
Just to throw some numbers on the table, did you know that a record 68% of Millennials and 81% of Gen Zers left their jobs for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily (source: Harvard Business Review) in the U.S. in 2020? Or that a whopping three quarters of everyone in that study reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in that year? These are sobering facts, and not only indicative of the U.S. - similar findings apply to Europe and the rest of the world. It’s therefore very, very likely that your own employees are struggling at this very moment - and you might not even know about it.
It’s imperative that companies start learning how to properly recognize mental health issues in their teams. Employers should make sure management and anyone in a supervisory role as well as HR can spot clues from employees, and adequately train them how to step in and support in a way that’s sensitive and helpful. There are plenty of training programmes available for this.
2. Open safe communication channels
Not every employee is comfortable sharing personal information. Particularly when it comes to mental health. Especially if there is even the slightest fear that doing so makes them vulnerable to judgment or impedes their reputation or job prospects in any way. In fact, almost 60% of employees have never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health (source: HBR, 2021).
It’s an employer’s responsibility to create and maintain channels of open and respectful communication between employees - especially between employees and management. These communication channels can be anything; chat platforms, video calls, in-person meetings, etc. Ensure there is a safe space to communicate without repercussions of any sort. It’s crucial that employees feel supported to ask for help when they need it. Tread carefully here and make sure management is trained and ready for when people do reach out - HBR reports that only 49% of people are met with a positive or supportive response when opening up about mental health at work.
Opening up safe communication also doesn’t mean badgering employees to share everything. It does mean ensuring everyone knows that if they do reach out, that it will be met with kindness and support. This is an area where it really helps to lead by example - leaders are encouraged to open up themselves and break down stigmas.
3. Ensure job security
Job security is the most basic of all the support pillars. Loyalty goes both ways - an employee must have the feeling that they can depend upon their company and that their job won’t suddenly be taken away from them. An employer can support employee wellbeing here by normalizing flexible working arrangements such as work-from-home options and flexible hours, and do their best to fit around an employee's schedule rather than forcing rigidity, where possible. Make sure there is space and understanding in case an employee unexpectedly needs to disconnect or take time off without prior notice - remember mental health needs can’t always be planned ahead!
4. Nurture emotional wellbeing
To feel emotionally supported, employees must feel trusted and empowered in their roles. Managers and employers can help support employee wellbeing by allowing employees to choose how they work best without forcing ‘their’ way of doing things. Respect different styles of communication and productivity within your team. Trust without micromanaging. Be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Take a moment to check in with how someone is feeling before diving straight into the task list. Normalize disconnecting from screens by respecting weekends and implementing a zero-email policy during holidays.
Remember to ask how you can best support your employees, instead of assuming. One size does not fit all when it comes to employee emotional support. Be proactive in coming up with ideas to boost employee mental wellbeing, and encourage discussion and suggestions. Offer tools that aid mental health such as subscriptions to music streaming services, external counseling sessions, or helpful wellness apps. Bear in mind here that only offering digital tools or tech is not the solution; tech itself is a great source of stress in our modern times.
5. Feed physical and nutritional wellness
Physical wellness is mental wellness. What affects the body, affects the mind. Although there are employers who don't see this as their responsibility, a savvy company knows that nurturing the physical wellbeing of their employees boosts overall work performance. People spend a huge chunk of their day at their jobs, often sedentary behind screens. Even small physical and nutritional improvements can have an outsized positive impact on alertness, happiness, and productivity. That inevitably translates to better business results in the long run, as well as healthier employees!
To help feed physical wellness, an employer can sponsor memberships for gyms, yoga studios or wellness centers. Nutrition-wise, healthy food at the workplace is a no-brainer. If many employees are working from home, healthy food package deliveries are a great idea. Often, healthy meal prep at home is neglected and a gesture like this is greatly appreciated. Don’t immediately dismiss ideas based on cost; the cost of employee absence or - in the worst case - an employee leaving the company is far greater.
6. Create shared sense of purpose
A sense of purpose is key to happiness. An employer can go further than simply involving employees in their vision for the company and sharing business wins. Make sure each employee knows what tangible effect their contribution is having, and list ways in which they are an asset. It’s better not to always speak in generalities or on a team-basis, but to address each employee as an individual human.
Another great way of aligning with purpose is to ask what projects employees enjoy most or feel most fulfilled doing, and try to match them to opportunities and tasks. Actively support career aspirations, but similarly respect the employees that have a blurry vision of the future - we live in chaotic economic times.
Finally, an employer can take a critical look at their company values and assess how well they are actually upholding these values. There’s nothing worse to fuel employee mistrust than a company that talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.
7. Sponsor social and community interactions
The final pillar of support that strengthens employee wellbeing is encouraging social and community bonds. Loneliness is rampant in this new work-from-home normality. Are your employees craving more social activities? Arrange real get togethers, rather than dreaded obligatory team-Zooms. However, don’t force socializing either. Many people feel stressed from forced social interactions, especially at work, and welcome the respite from water-cooler chit-chat. Therefore, respect your employees' need for silence and space but make opportunities for socializing available.
Since many people are more isolated from their communities than ever, sponsoring volunteering, such as offering paid time off in order to spend those hours with a charity or community development group, is another great way of building this last pillar of support.
Nurturing employee wellness is key to business success
A happier, less stressed-out workforce doesn’t appear - or stay - by magic. It is created by a finely-tuned work environment with supportive leaders. It must also be actively nurtured every day. Improved mental health at the workplace is a constant journey, not a destination.
Building up these 7 pillars of support is proven to strengthen employee wellbeing in any organization. An employer implementing them will undoubtedly witness a positive domino effect on their company’s bottom line, as well as improved health and happiness of everyone involved. Which leader wouldn't want to strive for that?