This article was last updated on May 9, 2023.
COVID-19 hit the workplace like a storm, not only shattering traditional work structures but also exposing vulnerabilities in employee well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the pandemic led to a worldwide increase in mental health problems in 2020, with cases of major depressive and anxiety disorders increasing by 27.6% and 25.6%, respectively. This alarming trend has emphasized an urgency to leverage mental health support measures in the workplace.
People have shed their masks and returned to their beloved coffee shops, but mental health issues persist like lingering debris in the aftermath of the pandemic. The year 2023 marks a turning point for employee well-being, with workers demanding mental health support and employers recognizing the value of taking proactive measures and investing in appropriate resources. Benefits like flexible work arrangements, well-being programs, and access to professional help are rapidly gaining popularity.
Despite these positive developments, some organizations have chosen a “check-the-box” approach to wellness without actually providing any meaningful assistance, otherwise known as well-being washing. A continuous, authentic effort is crucial to maintain mentally healthy employees. By taking the necessary steps, employers can nurture a resilient and productive workforce, paving the way for an era in which mental health is truly valued and supported in the workplace.
What Is Mental Health?
“A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”WHO definition of Mental Health
Despite being foundational for overall health and well-being, mental health has been historically misunderstood, mistreated, and overlooked as a mainstream concern. Only recently has its importance been acknowledged, particularly in the workplace. Providing ample support and resources to employees struggling with mental health is vital to optimizing their performance, productivity, and overall well-being.
There is no health without mental health.
Mental well-being enables individuals to navigate day-to-day challenges and thrive in all areas of life. Mental resilience also plays a pivotal role in overcoming difficult situations such as serious illness, grief, or loss.
WHO strongly emphasizes that mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. A comprehensive definition of mental health involves a multitude of factors, including aspects of emotional, psychological, and social well-being, affecting how an individual acts, thinks, and feels. There is no health without mental health.
Healthy mental function depends on several components, including:
- Ability to be self-aware
- Ability to self-reflect
- Ability to relate to others
- Ability to control impulses that interfere with rational behavior
- Ability to regulate emotions appropriately
On the other hand, a clinically significant impairment in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behavior is characterized as a mental disorder. According to WHO, the most common mental health disorders include:
- Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders involve exaggerated feelings of fear and apprehension that occur unexpectedly and without warning. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, specific phobia, and health anxiety.
- Mood Disorders: Mood disorders refer to a group of depressive mental disorders characterized by persistent feelings of sadness or low mood that interfere with a person’s daily life. People who experience depression have difficulty sleeping, feel fatigued, have trouble concentrating, have changes in appetite, or have thoughts about death or suicide. Bipolar disorder is another mood disorder that causes extreme mood swings, energy, and activity levels. These changes can be severe enough to cause disability. There are two forms of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II.
- Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a mental illness characterized by hallucinations (hearing voices), delusions (false beliefs), and disorganized speech or behavior; caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a mental health illness caused by observing or suffering a traumatic incident. Symptoms may include having flashbacks, nightmares, and acute anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
- Eating Disorders: Eating disorders are significant conditions caused by repetitive eating practices that negatively influence health, emotions, and capacity to perform in crucial areas of life. Most eating disorders entail an excessive concern for weight, body shape, and food, which leads to harmful eating practices. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are the most common eating disorders.
Common Work-Related Mental Health Disorders
Along with the growing number of employees reporting mental health symptoms, workers claimed they felt more anxious in 2021 than in 2020. Eighty-four percent of respondents cited at least one workplace element that negatively influenced their mental health, including:
Low wages, long hours, and a lack of career advancement opportunities were consistently identified as significant workplace stressors in the American Psychological Association poll of more than 2,000 workers.
Common work-related mental health stressors and their associated workplace risks include:
- Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety can be a silent struggle in the workplace, causing low morale, irritability, nervousness, and difficulties with concentration, which may lead to missed deadlines, lower productivity, and missed career opportunities.
- Mood Disorders: Workplace mood disorders can lead to a massive loss in productivity, mainly due to absenteeism and functional limitations accompanying depressive and bipolar disorder symptoms.
- Burnout: Employee burnout can be insidious and lead to chronic exhaustion, disinterest, low morale, and decreased performance, harming an organization by reducing productivity and increasing staff turnover.
- Financial Insecurity: Financial insecurity occurs when a person lacks (or believes they lack) the money to pay bills and support basic needs. Financial insecurity has a detrimental impact on work participation, performance, and commitment.
- Discrimination & Inequity: Despite increased efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, unwelcome conduct towards underrepresented groups, such as the LGBTQI+ community, persists. This aggression creates a hostile work environment with severe consequences, including increased stress, absenteeism, turnover, reduced productivity, and damaged morale.
Employees still grapple with mental health issues, but obstacles prevent them from getting the necessary support. According to a survey conducted by Mental Health America, more than 80% of respondents reported that work-related stress negatively impacted their relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. However, only 38% felt comfortable utilizing their company’s mental health resources.
Top management must remove structural barriers to receiving mental health care and reduce the stigma associated with such support in the workplace.
The Prevalence Of Common Mental Health Disorders
Mental health issues are more prevalent than many realize, with virtually everyone susceptible to experiencing them. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
- 52.9 million US adults (21%) experience some form of mental health disorder every year. That’s more than the population of California, the most populous state in the US!
- 14.2 million US adults (5.6%) are living with a serious mental illness. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of Illinois, the sixth-largest state in the US!
- 17 million US adults (6.7%) experience a co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of Florida, the third most populous state in the US!
The most common mental health disorders, as previously discussed, impact a remarkably large population:
- Anxiety disorders, the most common type of mental illness, affect over 19% of US adults, or 48 million individuals. The prevalence of anxiety disorders makes it a primary mental health challenge for employers.
- Mood disorders include various forms of depression and bipolar disorders. Major depression affects 8.4% of the US population, and bipolar disorder affects approximately 2.8% of the US population, equating to 21 million and 7 million people, respectively.
- PTSD, a disorder in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing a traumatic event, affects an estimated 9 million US adults, an estimated 3.6% of the population.
- Eating disorders are estimated to affect over 5 million individuals annually in the US, which includes 4.4 million females and 1.1 million males.
- Schizophrenia affects one in a hundred American adults, which is approximately 1.5 million people and less than 1% of the US population.
According to WHO, 15% of working-age individuals have a mental illness. However, the impact of mental illness goes beyond personal suffering and has significant economic consequences. Depression and anxiety alone account for 12 billion lost working days each year, leading to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and significant economic costs. Addressing the issue of mental illness in the workplace is, therefore, not only a matter of personal well-being but also a critical factor in promoting economic growth and development.
Impacts Of Mental Illness
The prevalence of the mental health epidemic is broader than what is widely believed. Virtually everyone is susceptible to mental health issues. Upwards of 44 million U.S. adults (nearly 20%) experience some form of mental health disorder every year. Out of those individuals, ten million are living with a serious mental illness. In addition, a large portion of people who suffer from mental illness also from more than one disorder.
As discussed earlier, the three most common types of mental health disorders fall under the categories of anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and schizophrenia disorders.
Anxiety disorders, the most common type of mental illness, affect over 18% of U.S. adults. This represents a total of 42 million individuals. The prevalence of anxiety disorders relative to other major mental illnesses makes it the primary mental health challenge for employers.
The societal impact of mental illness varies among cultures and nations. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) approximates that mental health issues account for over 4% of GDP in economic costs. According to WHO, the global economy loses $1 trillion each year due to mental disorders, primarily due to decreased productivity. Employers bear many of the societal costs, such as absenteeism from work due to mental illness or caregiver responsibilities.
Mental illness influences the workplace in various ways, including:
- Decreased productivity due to absenteeism, tardiness, and other factors.
- Increased turnover rates as employees quit or are fired because of their mental health conditions.
- Decreased number of hours worked by those with mental illnesses who are employed full-time due to the need for frequent breaks or time off from work.
- Increased cost of employee benefits, such as healthcare coverage and disability insurance premiums—especially if there are many employees with mental illnesses at one company or organization.
- Increased stigma surrounding mental illness, meaning that people with mental illnesses may often face discrimination in the workplace.
Mental Health Trends
While the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, the focus on mental health remains front and center. Workers are more vocal about mental health now than ever before, and employers realize if they don’t address their employees’ demands, other companies will—making it even more difficult to attract and retain top talent.
A mentally healthy workforce results in reduced absenteeism, improved job satisfaction, higher employee retention, and boosted employee engagement. Investing in mental health is a win-win for everyone, and companies that fail to recognize this risk are falling behind.
To stay ahead of the curb, look out for these mental health and well-being trends this year:
- Virtual health care is positioned to become a critical, long-term component of employers’ health care initiatives. According to Benefits Pro, by the end of 2023, 95% of companies are predicted to provide virtual care for medical and mental health conditions, with 61% offering lower cost-sharing. More than half feel that expanding virtual care will help lower long-term costs, and 50% believe it will enhance results.
- The movement away from “hustle culture” will expand. After over a decade of hustle culture popularized during the golden Silicon Valley era, it’s no surprise that employee burnout has become increasingly common. The pandemic only intensified the need for work-life balance. Companies must adjust their culture to limit burnout while valuing the full person, not just the sum of their achievements.
- Employee Assistance Programs will become increasingly common in response to rising demand. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are an effective tool to help employees navigate personal or work-related challenges that may impair job performance and mental health. Explore more on EAPs in the “Resources To Promote Mental Health In The Workplace” section below.
- De-stigmatizing major mental health problems will remain a key objective. In 2021, almost two-thirds of employees reported discussing their mental health at work, indicating a positive trend toward reducing stigma. However, despite this increase in discussion, only 49% reported positive experiences or supportive responses, similar to 2019 rates. This emphasizes the continued need for employers, leaders, and management to contribute to removing the mental health stigma and fostering a positive work environment, beginning with genuine mental health conversations at work.
- Flexible work arrangements will remain standard. Remote, hybrid, and flexible work are here to stay, helping employees to better manage the demands of their professional and personal lives. This sustainable way of working helps boost well-being, job satisfaction, and retention. Employers may also experiment with compressed work weeks as other companies begin to adopt a four-day work week to improve work-life balance.
- Accommodation for working parents and support for their loved ones will be prioritized. With the disruption of traditional work structures, the challenge of juggling remote work and childcare has created a demand for family-friendly benefits to support working parents. Businesses can also provide behavioral health benefits programs, which address a wide variety of mental health challenges for adolescents and teens.
Why Mental Well-Being Is Essential For Business
While prioritizing employee mental health is intrinsically important, the benefits of fostering mental well-being in the workplace also make it a compelling business decision.
- Productivity: Unaddressed mental health disorders can result in a notable loss of productivity in the workplace in the form of presenteeism (being present at work but unengaged) or absenteeism. This is especially the case if employee stress stems from work-related matters. The CDC estimates that depression causes 200 million lost work days each year at a cost of $17 to $44 billion.
- Medical Expenses: Poor employee mental health results in high medical costs for the employer. One study found that employees who reported being depressed, unable to manage stress, or a combination of the two were 70%, 46%, and 147% costlier than employees who did not experience these risk factors, respectively.
- Retention: Mental health problems can contribute to high employee turnover. The major argument in support of building a healthy workplace is based on two ideas:
- Happy, healthy employees are more productive.
- Employees are more likely to experience higher job satisfaction and remain loyal to a company that is perceived to care for them.
Both strongly attest to why employers should prioritize mental health. Employees who do not feel supported in this area will seek companies that prioritize their needs.
- Morale: Poor mental health can deteriorate employee morale, which includes how they feel about their job, their team, and the organization as a whole. They may struggle to perform their jobs effectively if they are unable to escape a negative mindset and feel unsupported by their employer.
- Brand Image: Employers that neglect mental health may tarnish their reputations by lacking social responsibility to their employees. Alternatively, organizations that prioritize workforce well-being boost their brand image and have a competitive edge in attracting top talent. Nearly 90% of employees working for companies with wellness programs report being happy and engaged with their job and would recommend it to a friend. Job seekers continue to pursue organizations that maintain a people-first reputation.
- Absenteeism: Employees who are mentally ill are more likely to call in sick and have lower productivity scores. Burnout from stress, anxiety, and mood disorders also cause chronic absenteeism. Providing mental health support can reduce absenteeism and maximize the productivity of the workforce.
- Team Collaboration: Prioritizing employee well-being not only supports the individual’s mental and physical health but also fosters team collaboration. When employees feel supported and cared for, they are more likely to develop a sense of belonging and trust within the organization. Enhancing the social well-being of employees through camaraderie facilitates open communication, the sharing of ideas, and effective problem-solving among team members.
Resources To Promote Mental Health
Like any workplace issue, companies that proactively mitigate the impact of mental health challenges will thrive. Mental health can be effectively addressed in the workplace through various means.
Relieving the mental health epidemic in the workplace is a comprehensive effort beginning with company culture. Employers can offer many resources and services to improve mental health, but these efforts are virtually ineffective when the negative stigma surrounding mental disorders remains prevalent.
If employees feel ashamed of their challenges, they are significantly less likely to utilize the resources available to them. It’s essential to establish a culture that prioritizes mental health while reducing stigma by extending acceptance and support for those with mental disorders.
A prime example comes from an email exchange between an employee, Madalyn Parker, and the CEO of her company. Parker’s simple message not only made headlines but also advanced the normalization of discussing mental health in the workplace.
The virtual exchange gained public notice, and viewers eagerly praised both Parker and the CEO. The overwhelmingly positive response from the media depicts how infrequently employees are willing to talk about mental health in a professional setting. It was even more unexpected that such disclosure was appreciated by a boss.
This CEO successfully established a company culture where employees feel safe, accepted, and comfortable expressing the state of their mental well-being.
Using communication to minimize stigma and promote mental health resources is another key aspect of fostering a culture that prioritizes mental health.
- Do not put off discussing mental health benefits and community services until open enrollment. They should be promoted frequently, such as in monthly publications.
- Ensure leaders mention emotional well-being when recruiting talent and build an inclusive culture that encourages employees to bring their best selves to work.
- Provide workshops to help employees understand more about mental health and resilience.
Leah Weiss is a teacher, researcher, and meditation expert specializing in the application of mindfulness and compassion at Stanford University. She’s also the acclaimed author of the book How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind, which serves as a practical guide for individuals to bring their whole selves to work. Wellable reached out to Leah with an important question:
“How do you bypass the stigma surrounding mental health and create an environment where employees can step up and ask for help?”
This is her advice:
“The most crucial step in creating a culture that supports mental health is to frame mental wellness as a process that requires active engagement for everyone throughout their life span. People who struggle with maintaining mental health are no different from us; they are us. We all need to engage with mental/physical well-being efforts throughout our lives.”
For some, mental health comes easily, while physical well-being is more challenging. For others, the opposite is true. This doesn’t make anyone superior or inferior; instead, it reflects the unique composition of each person, with varying strengths and weaknesses.
Ongoing attentiveness to nutrition, movement, rest, and sleep is crucial. It is also important to nurture social connections in the workplace and communities, as well as to pursue a sense of purpose for maintaining satisfaction both within and beyond the workplace.
When business leaders exemplify care for their physical and mental well-being and openly discuss their own challenges, they encourage others to follow suit. By sharing their resilience strategies and inquiring about their employees’ well-being, a culture of health, positivity, and compassion is created.
Burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, and coping with trauma are components of the human experience. All individuals encounter periods of thriving and moments of difficulty. Normalizing these cycles of flourishing and adversity can help employees feel comfortable expressing their challenges rather than hiding in shame and social isolation. This open communication allows individuals to seek necessary assistance and extend support to others, cultivating a sense of purpose and building meaningful relationships.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
Employee Assistance Programs are usually staffed with social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals. These well-trained professionals provide employees with a variety of confidential counseling services to assist them with their mental health needs.
Most EAPs have been overlooked and underutilized. However, these programs are gaining recognition as a valuable resource for handling mental health issues in the workplace. Almost 97% of all companies and organizations with more than 5,000 employees offer some type of EAP.
Unfortunately, less than 5% of employees who have this resource available actively take advantage of it due to general poor execution, a persisting negative stigma surrounding mental health issues, and confidentiality concerns.
Employers must work to break the stigma of mental illnesses and encourage employees to utilize these programs more readily by building an inclusive and compassionate culture.
Mental Health Care
On-site health care clinics are widely offered as a benefit to employees. The availability of this resource can increase workplace productivity, improve longevity amongst employees, and reduce absenteeism. An effective way that employers can address mental health is by integrating mental health services into their pre-existing on-site clinics.
Telemedicine is a viable alternative or complementary option for addressing mental health. Telemedicine services allow employees to access mental health professionals remotely, providing them with the flexibility and convenience to attend consultations or therapy sessions without needing to be physically present at a clinic. This can help reduce barriers to seeking help, such as time or location constraints.
Stress Management Programs
Workplace stress is a catalyst for employee mental health issues. Its cost has recently emerged as a forefront concern amongst employers. Organizations can implement stress management challenges and programs to support employees.
Although these programs differ in composition, the main goal is consistent: to assist employees in coping with stress through education, group counseling, management techniques, virtual coaching, and mindfulness practices.
For organizations on a budget, many free or low-cost mobile app solutions can be recommended or offered to employees. One popular app is Headspace, which is known to guide users through meditation and mindfulness sessions with lively animations and helpful information. Additionally, employers may have an existing employee with experience in meditation or mindfulness who could lead a class on the topic.
Companies can enhance employee well-being in a variety of ways, including:
- Offering flexible work arrangements.
- Implementing a holistic wellness program that supports all dimensions of well-being, including sleep, stress reduction, and nutrition.
- Creating a meditation space and providing mindfulness training and/or yoga programs at work.
- Encouraging employees to take advantage of their vacation time. Some organizations accomplish this by limiting the amount of vacation time employees can carry over into the following year.
- Making accommodations and creating a return-to-work process for workers who need to take a leave of absence due to a mental health condition, allowing them to feel empowered and welcomed when they return.
Public Mental Health Resources
- Mental Health America (MHA) – MHA is the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of people living with mental illnesses and promoting general mental health.
- Center for Workplace Mental Health by American Psychological Association (APA) – APA provides companies with the tools, resources, and information they need to promote and support their employees’ and their families’ mental health.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – NAMI advocates for, educates, supports, and raises public awareness about mental illness so all persons and families touched by it can lead better lives.
- Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) – EARN provides information and resources to assist employers of all sizes in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing people with disabilities; developing inclusive workplace cultures; and meeting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) goals.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – SAMHSA is the agency under the United States Department of Health and Human Services coordinating public health efforts to improve the nation’s behavioral health.
- International Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) – EAPA is the most trusted source of information and support for and about the employee assistance profession.
More Mental Health Resources From Wellable
- On-Demand Webinar: Mental Health Essentials: Employee Support Under Stressful Conditions
- 5 Ways To Celebrate World Mental Health Day In The Workplace
- Employees (Still) Desperately Need More Mental Health Support
- 94% Of CEOs Think They Provide Adequate Mental Health Support, 67% Of Employees Agree
- The Wild West Of Mental Health Apps
- Multi-Purpose Mental Health Benefits Popular Among Employers In 2022
- Mental Health Conditions Remain Elevated As Pandemic Continues
- Employee Mental Health Continues To Plummet
- 8 Barriers To Wellness Program Participation
- Connecting The Dots Between Wellness and Mental Health
- Study: Mental Health Apps Not As Effective As Perceived
The mental health crisis is an ongoing battle, but there is hope in the workplace. By taking proactive measures and providing ample support, employers can play a crucial role in supporting the well-being of their workforce.
Creating a safe and healthy workplace is not just a fundamental right of every worker but also a wise business move. Prioritizing employee well-being comes with a host of benefits, from boosted performance and productivity to decreased medical costs and absenteeism. When employers demonstrate a steadfast dedication to the well-being of their workforce, they create a positive, mutually beneficial work environment that employees are reluctant to leave.
Supporting mental health in the workplace is no longer optional — it’s necessary.
By providing resources and support for mental health, employers can help their employees thrive, both personally and professionally, leading to a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce.