During the first year of the pandemic, employees and company leaders were largely in agreement about the need to prioritize mental health. However, as the economy recovers and the pandemic starts to wind down, senior leaders and employees may soon be singing from different hymn books.
New research found that employees (including managers and nonmanagers) and leaders (C-level executives) have very different views about the ongoing need to prioritize mental health support. While 67 percent of the senior leaders surveyed plan to return to the mental health strategy they used before the pandemic, about one-third of employees are considering changing companies for the sake of their mental health, according to research from Forrester Consulting and Modern Health.
HR can play an important role in narrowing this divide by making leaders aware of ongoing mental health challenges among employees that are likely to continue post-pandemic, industry experts said. They added that HR can help the C-suite recognize the return on investment (ROI) of providing mental health support and services, while also increasing employee retention by making sure employees have access to the resources they need.
The ROI of Mental Health Support
When dealing with resistant senior leaders, HR professionals need to "tailor an argument in a way that resonates with leaders who care about productivity, health care expenses and retention," said Myra Altman, vice president of clinical care at Modern Health, a mental health care services platform based in San Francisco.
"Although leaders may not realize it, there is no returning to normal. Employees need something different now, and mental health support is core to where and how they work," Altman said. "There may also be generational differences. For many younger people, mental health services are a real differentiator. They talk about it, and they expect it."
The cost of not providing the support employees seek can be high, said Jennifer Dennard, co-founder and COO of Range, a Bay Area workplace collaboration software company. "If organizations don't invest in the mental health of their employees, they'll end up investing more in recruitment and retention because there will be more turnover."
Offering robust mental health benefits has become a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining talent. In Calm's 2021 survey on workplace mental health, 76 percent of respondents said they consider mental health benefits to be a critical factor when evaluating new jobs.
"The emotional toll of the pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives and exacerbated feelings of stress, anxiety and burnout," said Michael Held, founder and CEO of LifeSpeak, a software-as-a-service provider of mental health and well-being platforms. "As organizations establish their reopening strategy and determine how they will approach a potential return to the office, the associated uncertainties have the potential to compound those feelings or evolve into new concerns."
"Mental health cannot be viewed as an isolated illness or challenge, because it's interconnected with physical well-being," said Bill Goodwin, CEO of MeMD, a digital telehealth company in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Untreated mental health challenges can also impact physical health and increase health care costs, he said, adding that "presenteeism" is another potential concern for businesses. "When people show up for work but aren't fully present and engaged, productivity is not what it should be and quality can suffer," Goodwin said.
Creating a Culture of Caring
HR and senior leaders should invest in training, education, benefits and programs that connect employees with treatment options and mental health care providers. But these types of offerings won't be utilized if there isn't a culture that supports them, said Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer for Deloitte and co-author of Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines (McGraw-Hill Education, 2021).
"The shift to virtual work during the pandemic has opened the door to more-genuine human interactions. It's become more acceptable for CEOs and leaders to express real concern and care," Fisher said. "HR and senior leaders have an important role to play in setting the tone from the top, modeling behavior and creating programs and benefits to support employees, but it's important that everyone across the organization plays a role in creating the culture."
Held agreed with that viewpoint. "Employees are often hesitant to share their feelings with their employer because the long-standing stigma associated with mental health challenges leads them to believe there is potential for repercussions," he said. "To mitigate this, HR teams should actively work with leadership to create an environment that reduces the stigma and provides a place where employees are more comfortable seeking support."
One approach is to balance data with storytelling so that the issues are "real" to senior leaders, Altman said.
"Actual people telling real stories are what keeps it in focus for senior leaders," agreed Lisa Ponder, vice president of HR at RK Industries, a construction manufacturer in Denver.
At Microsoft, employees at all levels share their own mental health experiences in person, on social media and in podcasts. But when leaders stepped up and started telling their stories and sharing their own personal struggles, it really helped transform the culture around the discussion of mental health, said Sonja Kellen, senior director of global health and wellness at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.
"The first step is to encourage open conversations to help reduce presenteeism, build relationships and support well-being," said Alison Pay, managing director of Mental Health at Work (MHAW), a London-based nonprofit that provides educational programs and training to increase mental health awareness. "Sometimes the conversations alone are all an employee really needs to feel supported. The conversation can also open the door to helping them access resources."
MHAW recommends that companies "create a network of mental health allies across the organization as part of a prevention strategy." HR can help identify employees who can make good advocates and allies and work with expert facilitators to customize the training to meet the unique needs of the organization.
"Create a charter that outlines how allies can make the role successful within their work role and then share the charter with senior leaders," Pay said. "The goal is not to diagnose or fix, but to enable people to talk and connect them with resources."
At Range, managers are reminded to ask their team members how they are doing, and HR encourages leaders to put their therapy appointments on the company's shared calendar as a way of tacitly acknowledging that everyone has mental health challenges.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Creating a Mental Health-Friendly Workplace]
Invest in Employee Training
Training also is an effective way to ensure that leadership understands the importance of employee mental health. At RK Industries, all HR business partners and senior field leaders attend an eight-hour training course to help them identify employees who are struggling and connect them with the right resources.
"Supervisory training has yielded the greatest return on investment," Ponder said. "It helps keep it front and center. If it's only HR, it can be ignored."
Cal Beyer sees mental health as the next frontier of safety. While working at Lakeland Industries, a manufacturing company in Issaquah, Wash., Beyer obtained leadership buy-in by framing mental health as an essential part of a risk-and-safety culture. When people are experiencing mental health challenges, work quality and productivity can be undermined and more injuries may occur, said Beyer, who is now vice president of workforce risk and worker mental well-being at CSDZ, a construction insurance company in Minneapolis.
RK Industries began raising awareness about mental health and suicide prevention in 2014 after an employee took their own life. That collective trauma spurred senior leadership to make an all-out effort to create a safe and caring culture that includes:
- Toolbox talks with construction workers at jobsites.
- Suicide prevention training for managers.
- Mental health resources through a wellness program, including an in-house wellness coach and personal counseling.
- Promotion of ManTherapy.org, a website developed specifically for men struggling with personal issues.
The Utilization Challenge
"Every workforce is different, so effective strategies and tools will vary across organizations," Fisher said. "The best way to understand which ones are right for your organization is to involve your people in the process, understand their needs, solicit input and give them the opportunity to provide feedback."
Although many employers increased mental health support and services during the pandemic, many benefits went unused because employees didn't know which resources were most appropriate and how to access them, or they were hesitant to use them because they feared reprisals.
"Regardless of the solutions you offer, it's essential to acknowledge that some employees may never feel comfortable sharing their feelings openly. There must be mental health and wellness resources available that they can select and access confidentially if they are to get the help they need," Held said.
When Range discovered that employees were reluctant to use sick days to care for their mental health, the company added "Sad Days" to their benefits package. Now when an employee doesn't feel like they are in a good mental place, they can take a Sad Day without fear of repercussions, Dennard said.
During the pandemic, RK Industries "upped its game" to ensure that employees had the resources they needed, which included bringing more mental health providers into their network, identifying mental health providers who speak Spanish, offering virtual appointments and employee assistance program visits, and reducing the price of medical coverage and co-pays, Ponder said.
Telecounseling in particular helped resolve some of the challenges around the use of mental health benefits. "Digital is the future of mental health and mental wellness," Goodwin said. "Telehealth is lower cost, easier to access and breaks down some of the stigma."
Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.