The pandemic left an indelible mark on various facets of our lives, but perhaps one of the most profound impacts has been on the emotional well-being of the U.S. workforce. The Leading Indicator Systems’ Workforce Listening Study Series, which uses the 3-minute, image-based AgileBrain assessment, has shed light on an alarming trend. Over the past six consecutive waves of population-level research, we’ve seen a surge in emotional activation or intensity and a continued shift from majority positive (i.e., promotion-oriented) needs to majority negative (i.e., prevention-oriented) emotional needs.
As grim confirmation of this trend, the same study finds that most full-time American workers (working from companies with at least 20 employees) meet the threshold for clinical depression. Using the Center for Epidemiological Studies depression scale, 42% of American workers meet the criteria for moderate depression, and an additional 1 in 7 meet the criteria for severe depression. Importantly, the level of depression is significantly related to both stronger emotional activation and increasingly negative emotional needs. Chief among these are the needs for relief from feeling uncared for, psychologically unsafe, excluded, scorned, and disempowered.
The implications of this emotional well-being crisis are multifaceted and far-reaching. Emotional distress shows up in tangible business challenges: decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, a pervasive decline in overall employee engagement, and crises of leadership.
This isn’t just an isolated issue affecting a few companies; it’s a systemic challenge that has the potential to ripple across industries, potentially destabilizing the broader economic landscape.
To view this solely through the lens of business metrics would be a grave oversight. At its core, this crisis is a poignant reminder of the human essence that pulses within our workplaces. It underscores the fact that employees, the very lifeblood of any organization, aren’t mere functionaries or replaceable parts in a vast machine. They’re individuals with intricate emotional dimensions, aspirations, fears, and dreams.
So, in the face of such a monumental challenge, how can employers rise to the occasion?
Where Employers Fit in Circles of Support
It starts with understanding where employers fit into the larger network of support. The “circles of support” concept is a holistic approach to understanding and providing support to individuals, especially in times of need or crisis. It visualizes the different layers of support surrounding an individual, starting from the most immediate and personal and extending outward to broader community and institutional levels. At the core is the individual, followed by immediate interventions the person can employ, then planned personal strategies; intentional self-improvement efforts; peer and social support; employer-provided resources; state-level services; and, finally, global organizations and bodies. Each circle represents a different level of support, emphasizing the importance of a multifaceted approach to well-being and resilience.
The Personal Level
At the innermost level is the individual employee, who needs a repertoire of “in emergency, smash glass”-type moves for responding to overwhelming emotions. Employer-sponsored self-help tools include mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, extending to immersive solutions like Reulay.com emotion-calming virtual reality (VR) experiences. In moments when emotional distress peaks, such tools can be a lifeline. Designed with the express purpose of offering immediate solace, they can guide individuals through episodes of heightened emotional stress, restoring a semblance of stability in moments of crisis.
In the longer term, models like James Gross’s emotional regulation provide a guide for maintaining emotional well-being. Employers can help employees choose situations that are beneficial for their emotional health and provide tools to adjust these situations. Training on diverting attention from emotional triggers, reframing negative thoughts, and selecting effective emotional responses can lead to a more emotionally resilient workforce.
Personal growth platforms like MagnifiU.com further augment this emotional support framework. By promoting such platforms, employers can pave the way for employees to embark on self-directed journeys of self-awareness, values clarification, and emotional fortification. Such platforms not only provide tools for self-improvement but also foster a culture of continuous learning and emotional learning.
Finding Social Support
Self-directed tools and platforms are just one piece of the puzzle. Wrapping around the individual is the role of social support, the impact of which can’t be overstated. By cultivating an environment where employees feel empowered to seek support from peers, family, friends, and coworkers, employers can create a robust support network. This sense of community, of not being alone in one’s struggles, can be transformative. Employee-led employee resource groups (ERGs) can provide a vital source of community. Sadly, the same tracking study finds an unacceptable level of American employees living in emotionally unsupportive homes and even feeling physically and psychologically unsafe, suggesting a real need for workplace monitoring and reporting.
How Employers Can Help
At the next outer ring, we find formal employer-sponsored programs and benefits like employee assistance programs, mental health coverage, and one-on-one coaching. Specific emotional needs can be linked to specific employer-sponsored actions—for example, meaningful recognition programs can be directed to employees who feel an unmet need for validation; quiet hours without meetings or interruptions can be directed to those who yearn for feelings of immersion in their work; those with concerns regarding fairness and ethics can connect with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives and ombudspersons; and those striving for greater autonomy can be connected to role-expansion opportunities. Taking the time to clearly align programs, processes, policies, and benefits with unmet emotional needs can pay huge dividends, signaling to employees that their emotional well-being isn’t just a passing concern but rather a core organizational priority.
At the outer rings, employers can advocate for, and coordinate with, robust state-level social services to ensure access to the basic resources needed to sustain emotional well-being. Expanding wider still, engaging with global entities like the World Health Organization, employers can be part of a global movement to address emotional well-being.
By taking the circles of support systems perspective, the role of employers in supporting the emotional well-being of their workers becomes clearer and, with any luck, closer to action.
J.D. Pincus, PhD, is a social psychologist and human capital thought leader focusing on emerging methods for measuring emotion and motivation. His AgileBrain measurement technique is a peer-reviewed, -published, and -validated image-based assessment that cuts through noise and posturing to reveal the actual motivational-emotional state of the workforce. His new book, Embracing Your Agile Brain, will be published in 2024 by Rowman and Littlefield. For more information, visit https://agilebrain.com.