When Work Hurts Mental Health

5 min. read

Surveys are showing a concerning rise in work-related mental health issues. Let's look at what we can do to turn it around.

Research just published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that U.S. employees' mental health has declined over the past year, and has barely risen over lows seen at the beginning of the pandemic. SHRM's survey results show that many employees see work as the cause of their mental health issues, saying that overwork or working conditions have led to stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Nearly half of the surveyed employees indicated that they expect increased mental health support from employers to alleviate these effects. They are asking for support to preserve their health and wellbeing.

There are two key areas that leaders can address to answer this call:

1. Boost help to employees experiencing mental health struggles. Increase mental health benefits, wellness benefits, and internal employee mental health supports.

Options for assisting with mental health range from expensive and complex, to relatively simple and inexpensive.

a. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Frequently tied with larger health plans, EAPs connect employees with support to resolve a variety of personal issues, and they typically cover the cost of initial consultations or a few sessions of counseling. EAPs tend to be less expensive for employers than comprehensive mental health benefits. Look for an EAP that covers some counseling and that provides confidential support for work stress issues.

b. Wellness benefits. Wellness benefits involve the employer providing coverage or a discount for things like physical exercise, yoga, meditation and mindfulness, personal improvement programs, or smoking cessation. Costs for this vary depending on how far the employer wants to go. Evidence points to yoga, mindfulness sessions, and exercise as the most proven to help prevent mental health issues.

c. Mental health benefits. Mental health benefits cover part or all of the cost for employees to get treatment from licensed practitioners. This speaks for itself, and is the only proven way to help employees once serious mental health challenges occur. Make sure plans have at least some practitioners who specialize in work-related stress, anxiety, and depression. As always, double check that the network offers plenty of providers in the areas where your employees live. If that fails, make sure that there are in-network, remote options instead.

d. Internal mental health supports. Usually found in larger organizations, these include things like employer sponsored support groups, designated crisis contacts, and in-house counselors. Of these, an especially good and simple option is designating and training crisis contacts within the human resources/people teams. Training such as Emotional CPR can prepare the designated person to assist employees when a mental health crisis occurs, until the employee can get professional treatment.

2. Attack the problem at the source. Reduce the underlying sources of stress, anxiety, and negativity.

As always at Amazing Workplace, we like to go after employee unhappiness at the source. There are many factors that contribute to employee stress and other sources of mental health issues, but let's look at a few simple improvements with a big return on investment:

a. Reduce micromanagement, increase leading for productivity. Employees feel more work stress when their workplace monitors and controls their time spent on work. In contrast, they feel empowered and successful when they are encouraged and recognized based on the amount of work they get done. Encourage employees to manage their own time to hit production goals. Don't micromanage their time during the workday. Employees want some trust and leeway to balance their day to day needs with the daily work, especially in hybrid work environments where they may need brief interludes to tend to family, pets, or household tasks.

b. Review and reconsider meetings, especially remote meetings. Frequent meetings deprive employees of precious work time, and back-to-back meetings directly increase employee stress. Have leaders review their scheduled meetings. Ensure that each invited employee actually needs to be there, or that they'll get something out of it (for example, a teambuilding exercise or social time with the team). If meetings can't be curtailed, at least put breaks between them, as research shows even a five minute break between meetings reduces their negative effects.

c. Create conditions for employees to form genuine relationships. Stress and mental health problems are worsened by social isolation. When workers do not have genuine connections at work, it means they spend their entire workdays in social isolation. Set aside time for employees to hang out, whether in person or remotely. Consider group games, sports, and happy hours. Encourage employees to share work-appropriate memes to have a laugh together throughout the day.

d. Open leaders' doors, and turn down the pressure. Make sure leaders are encouraging their teams to reach out for any reason at all. Normalize having quick check-in conversations that are not focused on performance. These should start with phrases like "How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?"

Most importantly, we should all commit to never ignoring signs of serious stress, anxiety, or depression in the workplace. Make it okay to talk about these things. And never, ever stigmatize or make fun of mental health problems.

We hope this article helped you think about ways we can all take care of each other better. If you want a window to stress and feelings in your workplace, you can get started with our Employee Happiness Survey today!