Since the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and employee wellbeing has been top of mind for everyone – and rightfully so. In today’s challenging and uncertain times, the mental health and wellbeing of employees has never been more important. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, burnout and stress are at all-time highs, with nearly 80% of workers experiencing burnout at their current job.
With burnout at an all-time high, HR leaders and organizations are wondering if they can make a difference. The answer is a resounding yes! We recently tapped Désirée Pascual, human workplace advocate and Chief People Officer of Headspace Health and Lívia de Bastos Martini, Chief People Officer of Gympass, to discuss how employers should be thinking about mental health and wellbeing in 2023 in the wake of their companies’ collaboration. Headspace recently partnered with Gympass to continue both companies’ focus on employee health and wellbeing.
Here’s what they had to say.
Despite the term “post-pandemic,” the enduring nature of COVID’s effect continues to disrupt routines and other personal choices. What can be done for employees to improve their mental health in this persistent new normal?
DP: Change starts at the top, and we’ve found that strong leadership is key to top-down stress management of the entire workforce. Successful businesses need leaders who are purposeful, present, plugged-in, and set an example for their teams.
While acute COVID-19-related stress is dissipating, according to our 2022 Workforce Attitudes Toward Mental Health Report, it still remains a top stressor for employees. Unfortunately, many employers are pulling back on mental health support at this critical moment in time. Employees are missing work due to mental health challenges, particularly those in top leadership roles, according to our research. In fact, more than half of CEOs and 43% of employees missed a full week of work in 2021 due to stress, anxiety or other mental health challenges. Employers can and should be open about their own mental health journeys to employees. Organizations should prioritize wellbeing conversations and make mental health benefits and resources easily accessible.
At the start of the pandemic, employers added mental health services for employees and increased general acceptance of employees’ needs. Three years in, what continuing role do employers have in supporting employee mental health?
LBM: The world is in a crisis of wellbeing, and it’s affecting both companies and talent. Employees are stressed out and burnt out, and as a result, they’re disengaged. In fact, the Biden Administration recently cited that 40% of Americans are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Gympass’ own State of Work-Life Wellness Report found that 83% of employees believe their wellbeing is just as important as their salary and 77% say they would consider leaving a company that doesn’t focus on wellbeing.
What this tells us is that employees are stating their priorities loud and clear. Employers who understand this, and who prioritize their employees’ mental health as a result, are the ones that are doing this right. There’s an altruistic element to it: Employers want their employees to be happy, healthy, and engaged outside of work. But there’s also an impact on a company’s bottom line. The ones who don’t recognize employee mental health and overall wellbeing as a priority are losing talent and seeing health care costs rise, and they’ll miss out on reaching business goals. It comes down to taking a people-first approach, listening to your employees, adapting, and investing in the right tools.
What have employers learned about the importance of training leadership and middle management to identify and address mental health needs for their staff?
DP: We’ve learned that even if management wants to support their employees’ mental health, they often don’t know how to start. They lack tools or strategies to succeed without formal training on managing mental health in the workplace. Great teams are built, not born, and training management at all levels on building a resilient, supportive, and open culture is critical in addressing broader mental health issues.
As employers radically rethink how to better support employee wellbeing, our team at Headspace Health started offering training for leaders on how to bolster self-compassion and engage in meaningful conversations with their teams about mental health, burnout and stress. We have a unique vantage point where we can offer science-backed tools, strategies, and exercises to better support mental health in the workplace.
How should employers be thinking about preventative mental health and self-care for employees?
LBM: The reality is that wellness pays back because wellbeing benefits are preventative. A Harvard study on the ROI of wellness programs discovered that employee wellness programs save companies $3.27 for every dollar spent in healthcare costs. The added benefit is that not only are employees healthier, but there’s an improvement in their performance and productivity as well. However, employers must understand that employee wellness and self-care is comprehensive: mental and physical wellbeing are a huge component, as well as proper sleep habits, financial health, nutrition, and the list goes on.
Employers who understand how crucial each of these factors are to overall wellbeing and take the necessary steps to provide support will see exponential returns on investment. 85% of employees are more likely to stay in their role if their employer focuses on wellbeing, and healthy employees are overall more engaged and productive at work. Companies who are doing it right are creating a shift in mindset across their entire organization. Managers set a precedent for their teams by taking care of their own wellbeing and leading by example to show that wellbeing is a company-wide priority.
It is generally assumed that workplace stress is a part of the job. What can employees do to mitigate it? Can a workplace ever really be stress-free for an individual?
DP: While a workplace – like all other spheres of life – will never be totally stress free, employers and employees can take critical steps to reduce burnout and build resilience so work is a place of stability, psychological safety and joy. We need to continue supporting and communicating workplace behavioral health and flexible workplace policies. We need to not just provide tools that allow employees to achieve work-life harmony, but also encourage and enable their long-term use. Behavioral health needs to focus not just on treatment, but more importantly prevention, and how to manage stress, in and out of the workplace. Behavioral health in the workplace needs to be easy to access, personalized to meet employees where they are at, and provide inclusive, culturally competent support.
Finally, I encourage open dialogue around mental health in your organization – starting at the top. Even in the absence of mental health benefits, it’s critical that leaders talk about the importance of mental health issues and normalize the conversation around mental health support. Leaders can promote work-life harmony through workforce policies that support their employees’ wellbeing and healthy boundaries, such as: not sending emails on the weekends, offering flexible work hours, mental health days for employees to rest and recharge, and demonstrating that it is OK to take time off by modeling it as leaders.
What can HR leaders do to promote consistent employee engagement with these mental health services?
LBM: Leaders should understand that these mental health services are not prescriptive. There’s no “one size fits all” approach. The tactics or resources that work well for one employee may not work the same for the next. It’s the responsibility of HR leaders to make these wellbeing programs easy to join or nudge employees to take the first step towards prioritizing their mental health. Leaders should arm employees with these mental health resources, then give them the flexibility they need to take care of their mental health in the way that works best for them. After that, give them a good example to follow – such as a leadership team who also invests in their wellbeing – and then witness the magic power of a happy and healthy team.