May has long been a month reserved for mental health awareness. But since March 2020, mental health has dominated many daily conversations. It’s a shame it took a global pandemic to normalize honest conversations about mental health, but at least we’re now having these conversations. To preserve the health and safety of all, they must continue.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%. Additionally, a recent poll of 1,000 people by All Points North (APN) Lodge found “that since the onset of pandemic, Americans are combating escalating mental health issues, with 36.7% experiencing more anxiety, 32.5% more panic attacks, and 27% more depression. Close to a third (30.3%) regularly grapple with stress and anxiety.”
Given the latest numbers, and considering that almost one in five adults suffers from a mental illness, often beginning around the age of 24, it is crucial to give workplace mental health the attention and space it deserves.
After living through a pandemic for over two years, workers are still struggling. A Society for Human Resource Management survey of roughly 1,000 employees found “that work-related concerns left more than 40% of employees feeling hopeless, burned out or exhausted as they grapple with lives altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Women in particular have felt the negative impact from the pandemic. Two-years in, they’re burnt out and leaving their jobs at higher rates than men. Layer in the war in Ukraine and cultural stressors in the U.S., and the climate to promote mental health is acute.
To cope, many organizations are investing in programming that addresses the current state of mental health including The Boston Club, a community of executives and professionals invested in elevating women in leadership positions. Their annual Community Salute event centered around the theme “Mental Health and Well-Being.” Twenty-two Progressers virtually attended the hybrid event where a panel discussed the pandemic’s impact on women’s mental health and well-being—at work, at home and in the community.
Panelists Danna Mauch, Sandra Stratford and Tina Lawler McHugh, along with moderator Mari Ryan, led an insightful conversation diving into how women continue to struggle with mental health in light of the pandemic and rising tensions in the world. The panel also addressed the question of the appropriate employer role when it came to caring for the well-being of all their employees as the world moves into a new “future of work” era.
Below are a few key takeaways employers should consider to ensure they are supporting the mental well-being of their employees.
Well-being programs are essential for employees as they provide free or discounted access to resources they may not get otherwise. However, employers should periodically audit the mental health resources they provide to ensure employees have what they need.
“Although 91% of Americans are covered by health insurance, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that coverage doesn't always guarantee access to mental health treatment. More than half of those enrolled in a health plan didn’t get the mental health services they needed in 2021, according to estimates from advocacy group Mental Health America.”
Some employers offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), but Danna Mauch stated they have “become the baseline,” as their services are short-term. Moreover, EAPs are incredibly underutilized with nation usage averages between 3-6%. Danna stressed organizations must provide comprehensive well-being programs from end to end, and that includes a strong focus on mental health.
While auditing mental health programs and benefits are key for designing a psychological safe space, it’s important for senior leaders to engage with and advocate for these programs. In doing so, they remove the stigma of talking about mental health at work, and in general.
The panelists stated a best practice was to develop KPIs tied to mental health, just as businesses assign KPIs to other areas of their businesses. When senior leaders attach measurements to issues such as inclusion and diversity and mental well-being, actions are put in place to reach those goals. Moreover, managers and department heads will understand mental well-being is a clear value for the company and they will lead their teams accordingly.
As more offices open their physical doors and map out their future of work strategy, it’s important that employers listen to the needs of their anxious and burned-out employees. Results from a McKinsey & Company survey state that “52% of government and corporate workers would like their organizations to adopt more flexible hybrid virtual-working models, in which employees are sometimes on-premises and sometimes working remotely.”
There are a lot of health benefits to hybrid and remote work models. An Ergotron survey of 1,000 full-time workers found that 56% of employees said their mental health, work-life balance and physical activity all improved due to their hybrid work environment.
A side benefit for women working remotely is their reduced exposure to workplace microaggressions. The 2021 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company stated that “all women are more likely than men to face microaggressions at work. But for women of color and women with other traditionally marginalized identities, these experiences are more frequent and reflected a wider range of biases.”
To be clear, microaggressions can still occur in virtual meetings: people can still have their judgement questioned, coworkers may act surprised at someone’s abilities or a colleague could be repeatedly interrupted and spoken over—these are all forms of microaggression. At least when working remote, while pouring a cup of coffee, eating lunch or simply sitting at their desk, women won’t experience microaggressions in those moments.
The most powerful thing leaders can do to build a psychological safe space for their employees is to be vulnerable and empathetic. In doing so, they recognize employees as human beings. By leading with empathy, vulnerability and showing humanity, leaders can show staff they’re more than an unapproachable boss in a suit.
These days, professional life and personal life are often blended. Employees will bring their human sides to work when they feel safe doing so, knowing their employers have created a safe space for them at work.
More than ever, employees are aware of how work and life greatly impact their mental state. These workers need employers who care about their wellbeing and safety. A comprehensive well-being program, flexibility and leading with empathy are three things employers should keep in mind to safeguard the mental wellbeing of employees.
Danielle Sutherby is a senior communications specialist at Progress, where she supports Progress’ employer brand efforts, raises awareness of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) and inclusion and diversity (I&D) efforts, assists in PR activities, and strategizes employee engagement activities worldwide. Danielle is also the co-founder of the first employee resource group at Progress, Progress for Her, which aims to empower women at the company by providing leadership and networking opportunities. When she is not at work, you can find her writing, reading, or acting like a tourist in her own city.
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