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Mental Health, HR and the Workplace

SHRM research finds a gap between employees’ and leaders’ perceptions of how mentally healthy workplaces are

illustration of mental health

It’s an especially unfortunate double whammy for employers: Significant swaths of U.S. workers suffer from mental health problems, and most of them don’t know about the benefits employers have provided to help them address their issues, according to SHRM research.

Untreated mental health conditions can cause significant and expensive problems. Twenty percent of adults have a mental health problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, untreated mental health issues can cost an organization $60,000 annually. That’s up to $105 billion a year nationwide, according to the Center for Prevention and Health Services.

There are steps employers can take to improve mental health across the board—starting with acknowledging and changing the cultures that create burnout.

Burnout Can Spread Like Wildfire

Unalleviated mental health issues pose significant risks for employers’ bottom lines because experts say that individuals with mental health challenges tend to be less productive, unmotivated and more likely to seek new employment.

For example, nearly 45 percent of workers said they are burned out from their jobs. They are nearly three times more likely to be actively searching for another job than those who aren’t depleted, according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 Research Series, which surveyed about 1,400 workers online earlier this year. Only 40 percent of burned-out workers go beyond expectations in their roles, compared to 56 percent of those who don’t feel used up from their jobs.  

It’s difficult for burned-out workers to overcome such feelings, says Daroon Jalil, a senior researcher at SHRM who conducted the study and holds a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology. She says that’s why it is important to address mental health issues before they become acute. Almost one-third of employees (33 percent) said their jobs often cause stress. Major stresses include workload, compensation, nature of their jobs, poor management and understaffing.

How Workers' Jobs Make Them Feel

“Workers who are stressed are not bringing their best selves to work, nor are they working to their full potential or pushing themselves,” Jalil says. “How these workers who are burned out approach their work can spill over to their team members, as well—co-workers may have to pick up extra work, which can potentially foster some resentment in a team.”

Talk Up Benefits All Year

Jalil says no job can be completely stress-free, though some taxing aspects can be more easily alleviated than others.

“You can’t really change the nature of the work, but the workload, leadership and understaffing are definitely within control of the organization,” Jalil says.

For example, employers can redesign jobs or better delegate responsibilities to reduce workloads, decreasing some stress. Employers could also offer more time off and flexible schedules—two benefits workers cited in the survey as perks that would help their mental health.

Employees are not taking full advantage of the benefits already being provided. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. workers said they are unaware (32 percent) or only somewhat aware (35 percent) of the available resources. Meanwhile, 50 percent said they do not feel comfortable using or asking about mental health benefits.

Jalil says workers who are often inundated with materials from their employers may not know where to find information about mental health benefits. Moreover, stressed or burned-out employees may lack the energy or enthusiasm to seek what they need. However, she adds that employers must be more intentional about highlighting the benefits and not just discussing them during open enrollment periods.

“Maybe there needs to be an ongoing process where employees are informed more regularly,” Jalil says.

Walk the Talk

Leaders must also create environments where employees feel comfortable accessing the benefits and meeting their mental health needs, according to Jalil. That’s not happening. Seventy-three percent of surveyed workers reported that their employers profess to care about mental health, though nearly half said their employers’ actions don’t reflect their statements. Only 2 in 5 employees said their senior leadership models good mental health practices.

Jalil says that employers should create a workplace culture where practicing good mental health care doesn’t require anyone to disclose any personal or private information. Leaders can model good mental health care by telling their team they are taking a few days off to decompress after completing a particularly time-consuming, complex project. They certainly shouldn’t react negatively if an employee makes a similar statement. Additionally, there should be no repercussions for discussing mental health challenges at work.

Employers should not signal to employers that they care about the issue and then do nothing about it. For example, Jalil says that if organizations survey workers about how they can help with mental health issues, they should be prepared to take action to improve the situation. If employers do nothing, they are reinforcing the employees’ beliefs that their leaders don’t especially care about mental health issues.

“I think that's a really big thing because then you will lose their trust,” Jalil says. “That becomes very hard to gain it back once you lose it.”


Most HR pros said they take pride in their work (95 percent) and find it meaningful and purposeful (93 percent), according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 Research Series.

Yet, 50 percent said their jobs have taken a negative toll on their mental health and well-being, while 52 percent said they wouldn’t recommend the field to someone already struggling with mental health issues.

“Sometimes, it’s just the very fact that a job is meaningful that can hurt your mental health, because when you find your job meaningful, you end up being quite invested in the work that you do,” says Daroon Jalil, senior researcher at SHRM who conducted the study. “It makes it difficult to detach from your work when there's a very stressful situation.”

Jalil adds that HR pros often must deal with employees having problems, so they absorb the tensions and strains of the people they are trying to help. Nearly 40 percent of HR pros said hearing employees’ stories related to death, illness and workplace experiences negatively impacts their mental health.

The HR profession has other unique challenges, such as managing the expectations between employees and executives, that add pressure to their roles. About 80 percent said they find balancing those expectations stressful, while 77 percent said they feel caught in the middle of the strategic vision set by leadership and the practical realities employees face.