by Shayne Thomas
15 Oct 2020
Don’t Let Mental Health in the Workplace End Up Being the Elephant in the Room
3 tips for making employee wellbeing a workplace priority
This has been a rough year for everyone.
Before we dive in, give yourself a minute to slow down, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that everything will be alright. Acknowledge whatever it is that’s stressing you out at this moment and let it go. And while it’s highly unlikely that a single deep breath will wash all of your worries away, it’s a starting point—just as much as it’s an opportunity to recognize that you’re doing your very best to get through this challenging year.
By a show of hands, who agrees that this year has felt like one big psychological and emotional rollercoaster? (I’m raising my hand with you!) If we only had the COVID-19 pandemic to worry about, that would be bad enough on its own. But when you begin to layer on crumbling economies, mounting job losses, socio-economic strife, racial tensions, and polarizing global politics, it becomes really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
You deserve to pat yourself on the back: your resilience during what has become one of the most difficult times in recent memory is truly commendable.
If you haven’t done so yet, let out that deep breath. It’s time to dive in.
The switch to remote working hasn’t been easy for everyone
No one likes massive change, much less when it happens like a surprise attack. The ripples of the COVID-19 pandemic have touched virtually every aspect of human life, including the workplace. As a manager, whether you’ve had to lay off employees in the face of budget cuts or come up with ways to motivate an employee now tackling the workload of an entire team—all while navigating incredible amounts of uncertainty—you’ve had your work cut out for you.
This has been accentuated even more as many of us, throughout this pandemic, have now found ourselves working remotely in a permanent to semi-permanent capacity.
While working from home may be seen as a perk for some, for others it has been a massive (and unwelcomed) change. This is especially true for employees who thrive on the routine and oftentimes more social nature of office life. When working from home, for example, sometimes the only human interaction we have is via Zoom or with the people we live with. It’s not the same as seeing your colleagues face-to-face around the proverbial watercooler.
Working through a pandemic puts a strain on mental health
Massive change like this can take a serious toll. In fact, based on a Qualtrics global survey conducted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was found that 41.6% of all people surveyed felt their mental health had declined as a result of the pandemic, compared to 44.4% for employees now working from home and 48.5% for the recently unemployed.
The reasons most often cited for this perceived decline in mental health included increased anxiety (24%), more stress (20.1%), fears of losing a job (14.2%), not keeping busy (8.6%), and the challenges of working from home (8.5%). Even more, among all respondents, 65.9% had become more stressed, 57.2% had experienced more anxiety, and 75.2% had felt more socially isolated since the start of the pandemic. But what were employers doing to help?
Employers must acknowledge the signs of mental distress head on
We’ve been taught to believe that you have to come to work every day—even if you’re doing it from the comfort of your own home—with a smile on your face, regardless of the personal or professional challenges you may be experiencing.
Because work is such an important part of our lives, even more so in American culture, many of us have created a defense mechanism that aims to separate “work life” from “personal life.” Or rather, keeping the personal out of work and just staying focused on the tasks at hand.
Unfortunately, that’s not how humans work, nor is it a healthy way to operate. We are emotional creatures by nature and, as a result, have our occasional ups and downs. It’s perfectly normal. But in the workplace, it’s not viewed that way. Oftentimes, employees are pressured, albeit indirectly, to bring their game faces to the table every day. The big problem with this is that it’s merely a cover up for what’s bubbling under the surface.
Expecting employees to mask the signs of their own mental health decline, until it’s gotten to a point where it’s virtually impossible to hide anymore, is not the answer. As leaders and managers, you are ultimately responsible for keeping your teams engaged, whether or not there’s a pandemic ripping through the world, and also spotting the warning signs of stress, anxiety, and burn out well before they impact your team’s overall productivity.
You need to be on the lookout for these common signs of mental health stress:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Growing feelings of sadness, depression, or guilt
- Increased irritability and anger
- Confusion and mental cloudiness
- Fatigue, resulting from insomnia
SOURCE: “The Other COVID-19 Crisis: Mental Health.” Qualtrics, April 14, 2020.
While many of these symptoms have undoubtedly been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, they don’t only live in a pandemic vacuum. Various workplace-induced mental health issues—oftentimes fueled by extreme stress and a constant pressure to exceed a manager’s expectations—have always been present. Unfortunately, there is still a huge amount of stigma around mental health in the workplace that no one, including managers, ever really wants to tackle head on. In many cases, we naively hope that employees will get the help they need on their own, so they can get themselves back on track and pretend like nothing ever happened.
But what happens when people don’t even recognize these warning signs on their own? Or even worse, when they’ve accepted their declining mental health as simply the unavoidable outcome of their job description? This is where employers really need to take a more proactive role in helping employees overcome these challenges.
3 ways to address mental health in the workplace
Many employers today are still ill-prepared to give employees who are confronting serious mental health issues—especially when it impacts productivity, engagement, and overall morale—the support they desperately need. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
Here are three simple ways to help your employees avoid treading water:
It’s one thing to recognize the early signs of mental health problems affecting the people on your team. It’s another thing to know how to address them in a safe, sensitive, and respectful way. The wrong approach to these conversations can leave the person on the receiving end feeling defensive, shameful, and overly exposed. This could undermine any good intentions that a manager may have and, ultimately, make the problem even worse.
Even though mental health at the workplace has become a major area of focus for companies of all shapes and sizes over the years, only about 25% of managers in the United States have been adequately trained to know when and how to refer employees to mental health resources. The truth is, if we want managers to be go-to support systems for their employees as well as advocates for mental wellbeing—especially during times as troubling as these—they need to be equipped with the skills to have these tough conversations in a way that shows employees they genuinely care about their success and wellbeing.
It doesn’t cost a lot for companies to provide employees with resources to help them manage stress more effectively or even learn how to build mindfulness into their day-to-day work life. In fact, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) typically cost companies less than $1.50 per month (per employee), which is a relative bargain when you consider how much this can help employees find greater balance and peace-of-mind when confronted with mounting stress.
Even so, according to a study conducted by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), only 13% of companies provide on-site stress management programs and an even lower 11% offer mindfulness or meditation benefits. This is basically low-hanging fruit. While it might not be the end all, be all solution for employees suffering from severe mental health issues, it can certainly be one solution (of many) that can help those struggling during times of massive change to learn how to cope and take control of their stress, anxiety, and depression.
Beyond this, it’s also important for employers to ensure that mental health resources and support are baked into employee healthcare benefits. Mental health is not something that affects only the weak-minded. It is something that affects us all to varying degrees—and can be triggered when you least expect it. Take the time to revisit benefits packages to ensure that everyone has access to the help and resources they need whenever they need it.
To remove the stigma associated with mental health issues, companies need to talk about it openly. It shouldn’t be the “elephant in the room.” Nearly 20% of Americans suffer from some kind of mental illness or live with a mental health condition of varying degrees of severity. It’s more common than you may think and, aside from genetically-predisposed conditions that some people may be born with, mental health issues can affect practically everyone.
The more we talk about it, the more we can help empower people who are facing mental health challenges to take the necessary steps to get the life-changing help and support they need. Seeking help is not a weakness, it’s a strength. But many people are too afraid of being judged or looked at differently simply by being open about their mental health issues. The dialogue needs to change entirely—and it needs to happen everywhere. Speaking about it openly in the workplace is a great start. It needs to trickle from the top down and be actively supported by leaders and managers alike in both words and actions.
It’s time to make your employees’ mental wellbeing a top priority
There are a lot of ways that your business can reframe the entire conversation about mental health and provide new tools, resources, and support systems to employees that may be coping with a variety of challenges, including those inflicted upon us all by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no better time than now to make all aspects of employee wellbeing a key priority for your business. If you're ready to start enabling your managers and training all employees on mental health in the workplace, Cornerstone Learning is ready to help you get started.