Leader’s biggest challenge: How to Develop an Effective Workplace Mental Health Strategy as part of your business success
by - Alan Caugant, CEO SUPERHUMAIN™
Companies are talking about employee mental health more than ever. In fact, according to Deloitte, 98% of surveyed CEOs said that employee mental health and well-being will continue to be a priority even after the pandemic is resolved.
Yet, in a recent McKinsey survey, while 65% of employers reported that they supported employee mental health well or very well, only 51% of employees agreed. Other studies report even wider gaps. These discrepancies are reflected in the low usage rates of traditional corporate mental health benefits and the ongoing sense of unaddressed mental health needs in the workforce suggested by broader data and anecdotes.
For a variety of reasons, the mental health support and resources offered by corporate America have not been adequately meeting the needs of the workforce. And as organizations look forward to coming out of the pandemic and getting “back to normal,” we have to recognize that employees aren’t going to bounce back at the flip of a switch.
If anything, employees will need more mental health support than ever. Between processing the isolation, trauma, and loss of the past year and preparing for a return to work in an uncertain future, employees — and their organizations — may need new tools and resources to guide them.
The languishing is unable to fully participate in their lives. They drag down team and organizational performance and are at risk for sliding into more serious mental health issues in the future. The human cost is high. Organizations can help the languishing build their core psychological skills and move up the spectrum toward mental strength and function.
The Company’s Role in Workplace Mental Health
Our mental health isn’t all or nothing. We may move along a spectrum between points of lower well-being where we feel strained to higher levels where we feel energized. We think of the overall population as falling on this well-being curve. At the upper end, a person is highly functional. At the lower end, they become less functional. In between, in the “massive middle,” most people (55%) languish, neither ill nor thriving.
In this context, employers play a role, too — both good and bad.
Certain workplace factors negatively affected mental health.
The way we’re working isn’t sustainable, and it’s hurting our mental health. Until recently, the conversation has primarily centered on pre-existing mental health conditions and the related stigma. Increasingly, the focus is on work’s effect on everyone’s mental health.
An overwhelming 84% of respondents reported in the same McKinsey survey, at least one workplace factor that negatively impacted their mental health. Younger workers and members of underrepresented groups were affected even more severely. When looking across all respondents, the most common factor was emotionally draining (e.g., stressful, overwhelming, boring, or monotonous) work, which also worsened since the pandemic. This was closely followed by work-life balance.
The other workplace factors that most notably worsened since the pandemic were poor communication practices and a low sense of connection to or support from one’s colleagues or manager, perhaps unsurprising in a predominantly remote workforce. The workaholism that characterizes much of U.S. culture has only been exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic, leading to increased employee burnout.
Companies increased investment in employee mental health — sort of.
Companies are finally investing more in mental health support out of necessity, but they still haven’t achieved true culture change. Our respondents noted that the availability of many resources provided by employers grew since the pandemic, including extra paid time off, company-wide mental health days, and mental health training.
This highlights a contrast in what employees used versus what employers provided, which were often more temporary, Band-Aid solutions. In fact, the “resource” most desired by respondents (31%) was a more open culture around mental health.
Times for reframing corporate care strategy
The positive news is that organizations today are recognizing the needs of those who are languishing or have more serious mental health issues, and many are willing to rethink how they address them.
Fortunately, there are several factors that organizations can influence to reduce suffering while also fostering greater well-being in the workforce.
Addressable factors range from improving access and awareness to focusing on preventative measures such as improving well-being and developing the core psychological resources that sustain and improve mental health.
These changes, and greater focus on a culture of mental well-being, have the potential to shift the trajectory of mental health in the workplace.
This reframing of the corporate role aligns with the findings of a 2018 summit on workplace mental health that employers’ obligation to employees “must first begin with primary prevention – focusing on reducing the onset of disease by addressing modifiable risk factors and bolstering protective factors in the workplace that are within the control of the employer.”
SUPERHUMAIN Neuroleadership – Building Mental Resilience in Your Team
Employers must move from seeing mental health as an individual challenge to a collective priority. Given all the workplace factors at play, companies can no longer compartmentalize mental health as an individual’s responsibility to address alone through self-care, mental health days, or employee benefits. A culture change is highly required both a top-down and bottom-up approach to succeed. Here’s what they need to provide to make real progress.
We know from our experience at SUPERHUMAIN that corporate coaching is highly effective for helping move those who are languishing.
With the benefit of accountability along the way, they get to experience some immediate benefits that will encourage continued engagement in their own mental health journey over time.
Leaders must treat mental health as an organizational priority with accountability mechanisms such as regular pulse surveys and clear ownership. It should not just be relegated to HR.
Leaders should serve as allies by sharing their own personal experiences to foster an environment of transparency and openness.
Due to fear and shame, even companies with the best mental health benefits won’t see an uptick in usage unless a stigma-free culture exists.
Organizations have to train leaders, managers, and all employees on how to navigate mental health at work, have difficult conversations, and create supportive workplaces.
Leaders and/or Managers are often the first line in noticing changes and supporting their direct reports. Building an environment of psychological safety is key.
The reality is that as someone who is running an organization, you are going to be just as likely, if not more likely, to encounter problems with mental-health and wellness issues as people come back into the workplace as you are to encounter problems with COVID-19. That’s just a fact, so you should be thinking proactively about it. And if we are proactive about it at work and if we create an atmosphere where we can talk about “how can we be healthy? how can we build resilience? how can we prevent burnout?”—and not just “what do we do once someone’s burned out?”—then I think we’ll be in a better place.
The massive societal shifts underway have changed company cultures and employee perceptions around mental health. Although employers have started to invest more, employees have rightfully increased their expectations. The future of workplace mental health demands culture change — with more vulnerability, compassion, and sustainable ways of working.
Hopefully, we will be able to move as far upstream as we can and recognize that mental health is the goal, just as overall health is the goal. There’s no such thing as overall health without mental health.
And so, we are, at SUPERHUMAIN, hopeful that corporate organization will not wait till next stage to address this point. We’ve spent too many years, too many generations, waiting till crises have occurred to say, “OK, now we need to address our mental-health challenges and our challenges to mental health.” And we do think we have the opportunity here because we have the attention of the public, we have the attention of the media, we have the attention of policy makers. We need to make use of that and drive change right now because this is our unique opportunity.
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