Employee mental health isn’t getting better – and HR will likely need to do more to help.
Nearly a year ago, we reported employee burnout raged on. By now, we all thought we’d rebound, but that doesn’t seem to be so.
More than half of all employees say their mental health deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic, according to research from The Conference Board. Women have suffered at a higher rate than men.
That probably doesn’t surprise HR pros though. You witness it almost daily in practice: More employees than ever have quit. Many requested or just took leave. Others complained about incivility. And you’ve probably had increased demand for mental well-being resources.
Not to mention, many employees aren’t engaged or as productive as they once were.
“We are no longer as ‘fresh’ as we were even a year ago. At that point, we were about nine months into the pandemic and still had emotional and physical resources to manage the ups and downs of the new normal,” says Andrew Shatté, PhD, chief knowledge officer and co-founder of meQuilibrium. “But now we are witnessing more fatigue and burnout than we have ever seen. And there is still no end in sight.”
After years of volatility, uncertainty and change, mental health is a top priority for employers. Here are trends in workplace mental health, the solutions HR leaders are leaning into, and considerations that should be top of mind as you work to create a culture of well-being at your organization.
Address anxiety head on
Employees are as anxious as ever.
“Employees are dealing with … anxiety regarding return-to-work timelines as well as the uncertainty that, at any time, things can be shut down again,” says Dr. Rachelle Scott, medical director of psychiatry at Eden Health. “This can trigger feelings of fear, loneliness, sadness and hopelessness that many people felt earlier in the pandemic.”
To ease anxiety, be as transparent and proactive as possible. With so much uncertainty in life, find ways to make the workplace predictable. Continue or restart informal rituals that employees enjoyed. Schedule meetings and workflows as far in advance as possible so employees know what to expect.
“There’s no such thing as overcommunication,” Scott says. “You want to make sure you communicate what your plan is and what the expectations are for each of your employees.”
That should include return-to-work, continued health and safety, and contingency plans, too.
Get ahead of burnout
Employees continue to feel burned out and isolated – the two major contributors to the mental health crisis.
“We are social animals and all of us, including introverts, need that real contact,” Shatté says. “When we spend this amount of time away from others we are at risk of big spikes in mental illness, especially clinical anxiety and depression.”
Rather than treat burnout, HR leaders and front-line managers will want to try to prevent it.
Shatté suggests employers:
- train front-line managers to detect signs of mental illness and how to direct their people to helpful resources
- offer resilience training, and
- review employee conditions to ensure they have enough flexibility to balance their work and lives.
Now’s probably a good time to “renegotiate the employer-employee social contract since what we are going through now is not what employees signed on for,” Shatté says.
Recognize, adapt to change
The pandemic changed people’s perspectives on nearly every aspect of their lives, most especially work.
“What’s important to people, in many cases, has changed,” Scott says. “Even in the early days of the pandemic, things such as salary, title and location were the most important considerations. But now, having a good work/life balance is, in many cases, even more important.”
So employers will want to work toward alignment with employee perspectives and expectations.
The best way: Ask employees. Create surveys that ask them to rate priorities – such as work/life balance, workplace safety, teamwork, compensation – before versus after the pandemic started. It could also be an eye opener for employees to see how their perspectives have changed.
In HR, you can adapt or design benefits, policies and procedures to reflect overall shifts. On an individual level, front-line managers might be able to use the feedback to create new goals, rewards and expectations for their employees.
Avoid assumptions, expand options
On the downside, the pandemic caused more mental health issues. On the upside, the increase has made talking about and managing mental health more common. Negative stigmas associated with employee mental health have vanished.
“The pandemic really did alter people’s assumptions of their own lives. It altered assumptions they had made about having to be at work every day. It altered assumptions about what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable,” says Dr. Srini Pillay, co-founder and chief medical officer at Reulay Inc. and former head of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital in a Conference Board podcast.
Now they have new ideas on what works best to help combat mental health issues. According to Conference Board research, here’s what employees would appreciate most:
- flexible working hours or a compressed work week
- hybrid work schedules
- recognition, appreciation and team building events
- mental health employee resource groups (ERGs)
- paid sick leave, and
- support for childcare and dependent-care.
Make it easier to access help
Regardless of the resources you offer to improve employee mental health, you’ll want to make it easier for people to access those.
“Make sure you communicate thoroughly the resources available for your employees to receive mental health support,” Scott says.
Beyond a mental health communication plan, consider giving employees the time and opportunity to take mental health days.
For instance, in the pandemic’s wake, many companies instituted a regular cadence – perhaps quarterly or monthly – of companywide mental health days. They’re extra helpful because everyone takes a day to improve their well-being without worrying about having colleagues do their work, leaving messages unanswered or being accountable to anyone.
Another idea: Offer regular training on how to navigate your healthcare benefits. The easier it is for employees to tap resources, the more likely they’ll use them to stay ahead or recoup from mental health issues.
“The healthcare system is complex, fragmented, and hard to navigate. Many employees don’t know where to begin, especially when dealing with a mental health concern,” Scott says.