Shailesh Dash

Mental Health Awareness at the Workplace

Sunset in the mountains

Stress and mental wellness remains an omnipresent issue for the new generation, and these issues are manifested in corporate working environments. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 50% of Gen Z and Millennial respondents in the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey reported feeling stressed, citing family welfare, work-life balance, long-term finances, and job prospects as primary causes. For the longest time, the personal lives of employees were believed to be the least of corporate concern. However, this practice has transitioned over time and mental health/welfare of employees started to gain importance in the past few years. A study by Harvard University found that employers, in 2019, were just starting to grasp the prevalence of these challenges, the need to address stigma, and the emerging link to diversity and inclusion. In 2020, workplace mental health support went from being a non-obligatory practice to a true business imperative as lines between work and home started to blur for most people globally due to the pandemic. Personal space at home were turned into offices and people started juggling between work and attending to family along with the constant worry that the health crisis may strike anytime. All these factors further accentuated the mental health crisis, bringing about a new era for the predicament – a new challenge for corporates.

Amid the increased level of uncertainty, stress and fear, the worsening situation took a big toll on the mental health of several people. Even before this, mental illnesses like depression significantly impacted people and workplaces. Worldwide, over 264 million people experience depression - a leading cause of disability. Recent research has found that about half of working adults globally have experienced increased anxiety around job security, stress due to changes in work routines and organization, feel lonely or isolated working from home, or have difficulty achieving a work-life balance as a result of the pandemic. And yet the stigma surrounding mental illness prevents many people from speaking openly about it and seeking help. Most people end up never receiving the right treatment. As a result, people either miss work or get less done on the job while being present at place of work for more hours than required. The latter is known as presenteeism, when people go to work while struggling with physical or mental health issues. This can lead to declining mental health in the longer run, and affect the company’s bottom line.

In 2021, the stakes have been raised even higher thanks to greater awareness of the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health. Both governments and employers around the world have responded with new programs and initiatives such as four-day work weeks, mental health days/weeks, counselling benefits and apps and much more. Recently, UAE became the first country to transition to 4-and-half day work week. The initiative comes as part of efforts to boost work-life balance and enhance social well-being, while increasing performance to advance the country's economic competitiveness. However, there’s much more that needs to be done to ensure the well-being or mental fitness of employees. Employers must connect what they say to what they actually do and bring about a cultural change within the organization to truly have a positive impact. The WHO estimated that depression and anxiety can cost the global economy US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity. It also found that for every US$1 spent on treating common mental health concerns, there is a return of US$4 in improved health and productivity. There are several potential benefits of supporting employee mental health, such as increased productivity and retention, and decreased healthcare and disability costs. Some of the ways in which employers can initiate support for employee mental health include:

UNDERSTAND HOW MENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS EMPLOYEES: It is imperative for employers to understand the gravity of deteriorating mental health of the employees on the workplace. Mental health training for company leaders and managers should be conducted to make them more aware of and invested in this change. Mental health calculators can be used to estimate the prevalence and associated costs of untreated conditions, along with the use of work-related surveys.

ESTABLISH AN EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (EAP): An EAP can be designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and other related conditions. Offering employees direct access to professionals via phone and/or in-person, extending the services to immediate family members, and making it easy for employees to know who to talk to or where to go to access mental health resources can go a long way in improving the overall health of an organization.

USE COMMUNICATION TO REDUCE STIGMA AND INCREASE ACCESS TO MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES: Open communication is literally at the heart of creating a positive change in the mental well-being of the overall organization, and for this, it is necessary for the management to lead the conversation and help reduce stigma. Providing resources that promote awareness can help create an accessible and positive workplace, one that fosters engagement and attracts talent. Management, while recruiting new talent, can promote emotional well-being and work towards building an inclusive culture that helps employees bring their best selves to work.

PROMOTE WELL-BEING: Bringing about an overall culture change is what will help create a truly sustainable and beneficial impact on the organization and its employees. Building flexible employee schedules, offering access to programs that help reduce stress, offer mindfulness training, and/or meditation/yoga classes, encouraging employees to take time off work, providing accommodations and developing a return-to-work process are some ways to promote well-being within an organization.

While addressing stress, burnout, and mental illness is critically important, it is also equally important to focus on the positive aspect of this conversation. Flipping the lens to promoting well-being can highlight new opportunities to move forward for the organizations. These actions are just as important as avoiding productivity losses, workforce exits, and other negative impacts. Yet business discussions often focus on mitigating these losses, rather than realizing new benefits. For senior leaders, HR professionals, and managers, the challenge is to fundamentally reframe mental health as a driver of collaboration, creativity, and contributions for all employees, not just a problem to be solved for a few. To achieve this shift, employers can focus on supporting what workers want to get out of their job, career, and work environment. Employers that have supported their employees with the pandemic, racial injustices, return-to-office planning, and/or mental health overall have better mental health and engagement outcomes. This reinforces the tie between workplace culture and its ability to support mental health at work when done intentionally.

Organizations must move from seeing mental health as an individual challenge to a collective priority. Given that there can be multiple workplace factors at play, mental health can no more be regarded as an individual’s responsibility to address alone through self-care, mental health days, or employee benefits. The future of workplace mental health demands critical steps towards culture change, deeper connections and the development of more sustainable ways of working to achieve this collective goal.