People don’t want to be told what to do; they want to be heard.
In my experience as a clinician and an executive in people operations, the greatest opportunities for both personal and organizational change occur in a psychologically safe environment that invites engagement. Such safety is established in one-on-one conversations and by fostering company-wide programs and behaviors that encourage inclusion, compassion, and equitable day to day practices. Nowhere is this more important than during discussions on mental health.
The trauma of the past two and a half years, from the pandemic to social unrest, placed unprecedented pressure on business leaders as loss, grief, anxiety, stress, and uncertainty pervaded our workforce like never before. During the chaos of upheaval, the employer response was active and positive — instituting flex time and working-from-home accommodations and expanding benefits with mindfulness programs and virtual care offerings including mental health care. This was the right thing to do as an instrument of support for our suffering workforce.
Does “Business as Usual” Still Exist?
But as workplace mandates and restrictions ease (despite the persistence of COVID-19 variants), I am seeing a return to pre-2020 norms, and a “business as usual” mindset, which is problematic. While Covid-related anxiety is receding, we see that stress has shapeshifted, with burnout due to increased workload or lack of staff, poor work-life balance, and poor management and leadership on the rise. In Headspace Health’s recent Workforce Attitudes Report, the fourth annual survey we’ve published, 71 percent of workers say their company increased focus on mental health following COVID-19, but only 25 percent say they have kept that focus in the last year. More than 80 percent of employees believe it is the employer’s responsibility to help with mental health.
The report showed numerous indicators of the state of employee mental health that were somewhat expected, given the stresses on the workforce:
- Nearly one-third of employees feel work harms their mental health;
- More women feel burned out at work due to increased workload or lack of staff;
- Only 28 percent of employees report feeling “very engaged” in their work.
However, there was one finding that did surprise me and, more than any other, should inform how we approach mental health benefits offerings moving forward: Ninety-four percent of CEOs think they do enough to support workforce mental health, while only 67 percent of employees feel the same way.
In other words, with regards to mental health and employment, we see a disconnect. Employees still need and want offerings that address their mental health issues, but the message they’re getting from their employers is, “We’ve moved on,” while employers see their offerings as sufficient for the need. The perception gap between business leaders and their workforce should be a wake-up call to address a situation where, frankly, I hoped greater progress had been made.
Who Can Close the Perception Gap?
Companies have worked hard to reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace and establish programs to increase access to care. Virtual offerings have helped address issues of equitable access to care, and providers have taken leaps in integrating cultural competency into their care delivery models. But the data tell us that there is more work to be done. Continuous communication of three messages is crucial:
- What benefits are available to employees?
- How do people access them?
- What are the right solutions for individual needs?
To help close the benefits perception gap, the messenger is as important as the message. Business leaders are key in destigmatizing the utilization of such benefits and modeling self-care. Middle managers, in turn, are uniquely positioned to take the pulse of the workforce and serve as on-the-ground communicators. They are closest to employees. No matter what inferences or conclusions we can draw from data, there are human nuances that can only be gleaned through fostering relationships that allow us to read the emotional state of the other person. Middle managers have the personal proximity and insight to do just that. They do, however, need to be adequately resourced and trained to show curiosity, listen thoughtfully, recognize signs of burnout and to triage and point employees to appropriate resources.
Equipping managers with resources and useful language can make them a company’s on-the-ground, in-the-field mental health allies: “I noticed…, and I’m curious: is there something I can support you with? How can I be helpful? Do you need support in identifying or navigating resources?”
Paying Attention to Diversity
The last two-and-a-half years have also made clear the link between mental health and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B). There’s no question that the lack of mental health resource utilization is a reflection of the historical barriers to entry and a distrust of services that are felt by people of color, LQBTQ+ populations, and other marginalized groups. When we run surveys or collect information anecdotally in our organizations, paying attention to the demographics of the respondents provides a crucial datapoint. We do not live in a homogenous world, and we still have much work to do to make universal access to mental health care a reality.
Employers shouldn’t be pulling back as we think about how to address the long tail of the pandemic. At a time when organizations are facing employee attrition, post-pandemic employee burnout, and the challenges of returning to in-person and hybrid work, it is important to foster work environments that acknowledge what employees are navigating, and workplace cultures and structures that help them do so.
Ask people what they need, and you won’t need to tell them what to do.
Désirée Pascual is Chief People Experience Officer at Headspace Health, where she uses human-centered design principles and data-driven inquiry to curate a joyful and resilient workplace culture where employees are empowered to do their best work. Born and raised in Europe, Désirée is fluent in three languages and draws on her culturally diverse background to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is trained in economics and legal studies, and holds a BA in Humanities and a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.