Employees are struggling. They’re burned out, managing mental health challenges and doing their best to balance work duties with caregiving responsibilities that have increased dramatically in recent years. And while these challenges have significant HR and business-related impacts, there are steps that HR can take to support employees and to better understand if they are really “OK.”
Understanding the issues
The first step to supporting employees is to acknowledge that life is hard for everyone at times, but there is always hope and there is always help.
There are numerous factors that impact employee mental health, but burnout remains a significant contributor. Employers and benefits teams continue to keep their eye on burnout because it has also been shown to decrease employee engagement and productivity while increasing turnover.
Consider, for example, that Google searches for excuses to miss work increased by 630% from 2018 to 2022. In addition, burnout is believed to cause $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare costs related to psychological and physical problems.
However, burnout isn’t the only issue affecting employee mental health these days; caregiving is increasingly being recognized as a workplace challenge as well. The number of unpaid family caregivers is on the rise and the challenges they face are spilling over into the workplace.
According to one survey, 70% of working caregivers said they suffer work-related difficulties due to their dual roles, and 69% have had to rearrange their work schedule, decrease hours or take unpaid leave to meet their caregiving responsibilities. In the worst-case scenario, the need to balance caregiving duties can influence turnover, with 61% of caregivers saying they have changed jobs at least once due to caregiving responsibilities.
Six tips to support employee mental health
Given these and a wide variety of other challenges, there is a significant incentive for employers to understand the mental and emotional state of their employees. But how do you know if your employees are really OK, and what can you do to better support them? Here are six tips for assessing the state of your workforce.
- Survey employee opinion. Sometimes the straightforward approach is best. Keep an open line of communication with employees so you understand their challenges and can more easily identify opportunities to offer support that will make a meaningful difference in their well-being and work satisfaction. Employees might not necessarily respond to direct questions about their mental health, but an anonymous survey or well-being hotline could help you make an impact.
- Continue to destigmatize employee mental health. Despite the growing recognition of mental health challenges, discussing mental health in the workplace can still feel taboo. Currently, 70% of employees say there is some or a high level of stigma around mental health in their workplace, and 79% say an anti-stigma awareness campaign would be helpful. In addition, an estimated 80% of workers with mental health conditions say that stigma keeps them from seeking mental health care. Look for ways to open lines of communication around mental health in the workplace. That may include hosting a guest speaker who can tell their story, highlighting stories of mental health challenges in internal communications or encouraging leadership to be open about their own struggles with mental health. Doing so will make it easier for employees to ask for help and to normalize mental health challenges.
- Encourage active leadership: There’s been plenty of talk about quiet quitting in recent years, but less discussion of quiet leading. Put simply, not all leaders are doing the work required to form authentic relationships with their employees, and that failure to connect on a personal level may reduce an employee’s engagement with their work. By being present as more than a figure of authority in the workplace, leaders can better understand the challenges their employees are facing. As a benefit, this can help workers feel more appreciated for their contributions to the workplace. This is particularly important, considering that 46% of U.S. workers left a job because they felt unappreciated, while 65% said they would work harder if they felt like their contributions were noticed by management.
- Remove barriers to care by offering resources, tools and support: While reducing stigma may make it easier for employees to acknowledge they need mental health support, actually finding that support and engaging in a timely manner is another story. According to one study, the average wait time for mental health treatment was more than 10 weeks. Meanwhile, 46% of Americans know someone who has had to drive more than an hour round trip to seek treatment. Virtual options and on-demand educational content can be effective resources to help employees bridge the gap between unqualified advice available online and in-person therapy sessions.
- Understand the challenges your employees face on the job and how this could affect their mental well-being. No two people are the same, and no two jobs create the same kinds of stress. For example, a frontline healthcare or retail worker is affected in different ways by their job than an employee who works from home. In fact, 82% of retail workers say burnout and stress have increased. However, just because an employee doesn’t have a high-level job doesn’t mean their jobs aren’t stressful. Take time to talk with employees about the stresses they face on the job. Better yet, take time to work the job alongside them to understand how they may be affected. It’s also important to realize that even remote employees feel stress and burnout. Recent data shows that 75% of remote workers experience stress and burnout at work, and 37% say they work longer hours than they did previously.
- Get familiar with the makeup of your workforce and the health and well-being challenges they face. Approaching your workforce as if all employees have the same mental health concerns will be detrimental to any attempts to improve their well-being. For example, some ethnic groups are more susceptible to substance use disorders, which can affect mental health. And a married father of four will have different concerns than a young woman just starting her professional journey. As a result, employers should consider options that provide mental health resources alongside substance use assistance, caregiving support and more.
Most U.S. employers report plans to make employee mental health a priority either now or in the near future. But those efforts do not always resonate with employees, nearly 70% of whom say it is difficult to access mental health care.
Take time to understand the state of mental health in your workforce and the challenges that your employees bring to work with them every day. This will allow your HR team to better identify struggling employees before minor challenges reach crisis level.