Recent research shows that employee well-being and mental health are losing ground in companies’ business agendas. A survey from the CIPD and Simplyhealth notes that there has been a decrease in many areas concerning the importance of focusing on mental health; for example, the number of managers who have bought into the importance of wellbeing dropped from 67% to 60% between 2021 and 2022, and the proportion of HR professionals who think senior leaders encourage and focus on mental health has declined from 48% to 42% in that same time period.
At first glance, the numbers may not seem that stark but if you consider that we are still grappling with the Covid pandemic and all that has come in its wake — return to work concerns, safety measures, vaccination status conflicts, etc., and add to that the general state of the world with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the instability and fear that has brought, then the case for making mental health a top priority should be strong. After all, employee well-being — mental and physical health — is crucial to ensuring employee engagement and performance.
Even though the Covid pandemic is not front and center in the same manner it was a year ago, it is still dictating life in many ways; the remnants of its influence are everywhere: to mask or not to mask, to jab or not to jab, to work in-person or not to work in-person, etc. And this point in time has proven confusing for many; where before we had strict rules to adhere to, we now have a mish-mash of recommendations to consider. For some, the loosened restrictions and return to “normal” is liberating while for others it is the opposite and instead invokes feelings of uncertainty and a lack of safety. This limbo creates all kinds of issues in the workplace and beyond.
A small example of what it can look like in the workplace was shared by a friend of mine who works at a large tech company where they are now back in the office. One of his colleagues will not take their mask off all day, not even to eat. When the workgroup scheduled a lunch together — outdoors — to do some team bonding, the colleague declined to join because they did not feel safe with masks off, even if outside.
It’s not hard to see what some of the disrupting consequences of a situation like this can be, where you have a co-worker who spends their days in the office feeling unsafe (and possibly hungry) and a disjointed team. Ultimately, dynamics like these impact everything from interpersonal relationships and collaboration to quality and productivity.
HR departments have taken notice of the issues that are surfacing in the wake of the pandemic. According to the CIPD survey, 66% of HR professionals said they are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health.
The pandemic hit the globally mobile employees hard — some got stuck in places they could not get out of; others were forced to put career plans on hold. Yet another group had to continue to travel with the many restrictions and uncertainties that came with that.
An employee I know has traveled internationally for work throughout the pandemic and the toll on their mental and physical health has been real. Months of navigating ever-changing entry regulations, testing requirements, living in ”bubbles”, and quarantining (while also running the risk of getting stuck in a “quarantine hotel” for weeks on end) left them exhausted to the point of needing medical care. They’ve received minimal wellness support from their employer during this time, even when asking for simple measures to be put into place. They are considering leaving their position because of the lack of support. Research from Cigna shows that 56% of globally mobile employees look for mental health support, and only 30% receive it.
So what can companies do to mitigate stigma, increase support, and promote mental health? A 2019 survey conducted by Harvard Business Review in partnership with SAP and Qualtrics found that the most sought-after mental health workplace resources were a more open and accepting culture, clearer information about where to go/how to get support, and mental health training. The same survey showed that some 46% of all workers said that their company had not proactively shared what mental health resources were available.
Since stigma is still playing a part in preventing many from accessing mental health benefits, it is important to build a workplace culture that champions tolerance and openness. A good place to start is to make sure mental health is included in basic health care coverage and not only available on an opt-in basis. Easy access is crucial.
While the overall workplace standard for how mental health is approached is set at the company level, managers have an important role to play in building a culture that is open and accessible. Being honest about their own mental health is a way to build trust in a team. Checking in with individual employees on a regular basis is another critical component, as is taking a customized approach to meeting people’s needs. Building peer support teams is also a way to promote openness and offer support.
Neglecting employee mental health is not an option for an organization that wants to be successful; the consequences of doing so are too severe and will ultimately be felt on every level with not just individuals struggling but also weakened team cohesion, diminished creativity, lowered employee engagement and performance, as well as loss of talent altogether.
By: Felicia Shermis