October 7, 2021

Mental Health: Emerging Themes That Should Guide Employer Action

Steven Levine
Health Action Alliance

Companies will need robust plans to make meaningful progress on a crisis in the workplace.

In advance of World Mental Health Awareness Day on Oct. 10, the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation (SHRM Foundation) convened their first-ever Workplace Mental Health & Wellness Summit on Monday, bringing together subject-matter experts, CEOs, CHROs, philanthropists and business leaders to address one of the most critical challenges in the workplace. 

The pandemic’s toll on worker mental health has been well reported, and it shows no signs of fading. Nearly half of adults say that worry or stress about the pandemic has impacted their mental health; 30% report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared to 11% in 2019. Meanwhile, 70% of employers now recognize mental health as a serious workplace concern, up from 59% in June of 2020. It’s no wonder: Depression alone is the cause of 200 million lost workdays a year. The lost productivity from mental health conditions is outpacing heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Attending the SHRM Foundation’s summit and hearing from leaders in the field, we have identified six emerging themes for employers to include in their mental health action plans.

  1. Companies must treat mental health with the same priority as physical health. 
    This can be reflected in the financial investments employers make, the assignment of senior leadership to be held accountable for their team’s mental health, and the sense of urgency companies demonstrate to respond to the mental health crisis.  
  2. Employees need better mental health benefits, more awareness of them, and easier access to them. 
    Companies should challenge their insurance providers to add or enhance mental health offerings, like their Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and see what they can offer by themselves, including flexible hours or support for childcare to assist working parents. They should revisit exactly what steps employees must take to access mental health support with a goal towards significantly streamlining the process. And they should promote mental health and the available support proactively and continuously.
  3. Eliminating the stigma around mental health conditions starts at the top. 
    Many employees aren’t comfortable speaking to their managers about feeling burned out or depressed, largely from a fear of being thought of as incapable of doing their jobs. Managers need to start the conversation. Company leadership can also start to change the culture by being vulnerable themselves, speaking openly about their own mental health experiences, and building a supportive environment in which managers initiate conversation, establish a relationship of trust with the employee, and look out for signs of distress. 
  4. Businesses should tailor their mental health outreach to meet the needs of diverse workforce populations.
    The pandemic's mental health burdens have not fallen equally across gender or ethnicity. Like other aspects of the pandemic, a thoughtful approach tailored to the unique needs and concerns of workers from diverse backgrounds can get them the assistance they need and help address challenges in recruitment and retention. Consider partnering with Employee Resource Groups to better understand the unique needs of your company's workforce populations, and consider mental health resources tailored to them. 
  5. Promote, incentivize and support managers who create healthy spaces for their teams.
    When it comes to creating a healthy workplace, “the manager is the magic,” Morgan Stanley’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Stark says. The manager-employee relationship has an outsized impact on employee mental health and employee retention. Rather than considering productivity alone in performance evaluations and promotion decisions, consider incentivizing and encouraging managers to create a supportive and healthy work environment for their team. Go a step further by offering training to help managers lead conversations about mental health and create more supportive work environments for employees on their teams.
  6. Companies should establish measurement tools to track and improve their performance.
    Employers should be rigorous in measuring employees’ satisfaction with the company’s commitment to mental health. Integrating mental health metrics into managers’ performance reviews will go a long way to align incentives and build a psychologically healthy culture. And inviting employees to regularly share their level of stress in safe spaces or through regular surveys will enable your leaders to tailor their outreach and support when your employees need it most. 

We will develop these principles and recommendations more fully in the months ahead. As best practices emerge from companies leading on workplace mental health issues, we will provide more information and tools to help your company train managers, lead productive conversations with employees, and implement policies that prioritize mental health and wellness.

For now, we encourage you to check out free videos from this week’s SHRM Workplace Mental Health & Wellness Summit, coming soon to their website. For more information, contact shrmfoundation@shrm.org.