Mental health is in a delicate state. After more than 2 years of a pandemic that has left many feeling isolated and anxious, mental health challenges are having a greater impact than at any time in recent history. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered dramatic increases in anxiety and depression and contributed to 35 million additional Americans suffering from behavioral health conditions.
There are significant health impacts associated with this surge. Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, with the cost of treatment second only to the cost of cancer care. Furthermore, mental health challenges have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer while contributing to increased alcohol and drug use, violent or self-destructive behavior, and suicide.
For employers, there is also a direct impact on the bottom line. For example, mental health contributes to burnout, which played a significant role in an average of 3.98 million workers quitting their jobs each month in 2021. In addition, employees with unresolved depression are 35% less productive, contributing to an annual $210.5 billion loss to the U.S. economy each year. All told, burnout costs employers between $125 billion and $190 billion each year.
Addressing Mental Health
While the stakes are high for addressing workplace mental health, employers may be falling short. For example, while 86% of employers consider mental health, stress, and burnout top priorities for 2022, nearly half were still developing their strategies early this year. And while employers give themselves a score of 7.6 out of 10 for their mental health efforts, employees give employers just 4.4 out of 10, with only 20% of employees saying their HR department has offered productive solutions when they have tried to discuss burnout.
This is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted solution. Following are five ways employers can support employee mental health through strategic use of well-being initiatives.
1. Improve Access to Mental Health Services
This might seem obvious, but accessing mental health services isn’t always as straightforward as it should be. While attitudes about mental health are changing, there is still a stigma that may make employees reluctant to seek help. Meanwhile, securing timely appointments with mental health providers can be challenging. Employers should offer a variety of options for seeking care and work with providers that can guarantee timely access to services for new and existing patients. Employers can also help reduce the stigma around mental health by encouraging discussion of the subject in the workplace. When leaders are open about their own struggles, they can create an environment where it is possible to have an open and accepting dialogue about mental health.
2. Practice Mindfulness
For some employees, learning how to manage stressors can significantly improve mental health. Employers can support this by introducing employees to mindfulness instruction. Studies have shown that mindfulness can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by helping employees block out distractions and focus on the task in front of them. This, in turn, may help employees better manage relationships at work, support diversity and inclusion by reducing implicit bias, and improve performance. Similarly, yoga, stretching, or breathing exercises can help employees calm their troubled minds. Encourage employees to set aside time each day for mindfulness or stretching breaks, and make it acceptable for them to do so within the workplace or within the structure of their day. Some employees may prefer to approach these exercises alone, while others will gravitate toward a group activity, either live or virtual.
3. Encourage Physical Activity
Physical activity goes a long way toward managing stress and easing mental health challenges. Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional well-being. Exercise can also increase self-confidence and improve sleep, which further benefits mental health. And while some might revel in a workout that leaves them sweaty and gasping for air, exercise doesn’t have to be exhausting to have a mental health benefit. Experts suggest that adults should be active for 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate physical activity each week or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous activity. Offer employees solutions like on-demand, virtual fitness that give them access to a range of activities appropriate to users of all ages and ability levels without requiring them to schedule their day around trips to the gym. As an added benefit, virtual fitness options that engage an employee’s family will reduce stressors at home that can otherwise carry over into the workplace, particularly at a time when home is the workplace for many employees.
4. Fuel the Body and the Brain
Your gut is smarter than you realize. The layers of nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract are frequently referred to as your second brain, which gives new meaning to the old saying “You are what you eat.” Current studies also show that diet has a significant effect on mental health. To help employees use food to improve rather than hinder mental well-being, educate them on how to eat healthier meals. That might include providing lists of nutritious foods to make grocery shopping easy, recipe ideas to inspire healthful meals, or video cooking instruction that will help them expand their kitchen skills while creating healthy meals.
5. Take, and Encourage, Breaks
If mental health struggles are the result of burnout, giving employees a break might offer a significant boost to mental health. That could mean taking a team walk on a nice day, eliminating work communications outside of business hours, or actively encouraging employees to take paid time off (PTO). That is an important step considering that employees forfeit about half of their PTO each year—equivalent to about $65.5 billion in lost benefits. Another study found that 43% of employees worked or planned to work during their vacation in 2020, and 59% said they planned to check their work e-mail on vacation. In addition to PTO, employers might consider offering additional mental health days so employees can take a quick break without worrying about cutting into vacation time.
Employee mental health had already become a hot topic before the COVID-19 pandemic, but 2 years of pandemic-related uncertainty and disrupted work and parenting schedules have raised the stakes to unprecedented levels. For employers, finding resources to support employee mental health will be key to maintaining productivity, as well as improving attraction and retention. Fortunately, with thorough planning and innovative thinking, employers can help employees remain physically and mentally healthy, both now and in the future.
Mark Kingsriter is fitness director for Wellbeats, a scalable, affordable, and easy-to-use virtual fitness solution that empowers habit-forming physical and mental health for its more than 1.9 million members. As a pioneer of the virtual fitness space, the Wellbeats difference lies within the quality and variety of content, security and innovation. With more than 1,000 exercise, nutrition and mindfulness classes, there is something for every age, interest, environment, and ability level.