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Why Mental Health Will Be One of the Biggest Topics of 2024


There’s no question that employee burnout and mental health issues have been a continuous problem over the past several years. But despite various employer investments in benefits to troubleshoot stress and improve emotional well-being, employees are still dealing with significant anxiety.

Well over half of employees (57 percent) are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, according to a recent report from Aflac. Meanwhile, employees’ confidence in how much their employers care about them has declined significantly: 48 percent said they have confidence in their employers caring about them in 2023—down from 56 percent in 2022 and 59 percent in 2021.

And, said Aflac CHRO Jeri Hawthorne, with a looming presidential election—and the polarization and heated conversations that come with it—coupled with financial worries, long work hours and other stressors, burnout might be even more of an issue this year.  

“Mental and emotional wellness will be a massive topic, especially as we’re going into an election year,” Hawthorne said. “People tend to be much more polarized in their views. Maybe five or 10 years ago, people could just disagree on and have different perspectives on certain topics, but now it’s become much more polarized and sometimes even aggressive. Mental health—and areas around helping reduce stress and improve emotional wellness—will be a massive focus for the next year.”

HR leaders, Hawthorne explained, should be at the forefront of helping to improve the statistics and improve employees’ situations.

SHRM Online recently talked with Hawthorne about the reasons behind employee burnout, how it affects the workplace and how HR leaders should plan for improved benefits strategy in 2024.

SHRM Online: How big of an issue is burnout in the workplace, and how much should this be a call to action for employers?

Hawthorne: It’s significant. Since the pandemic, we’ve continued to see an escalation around stress and burnout. People who are stressed are less productive, and not only are they less productive, but you have things like higher levels of absenteeism and irritability in the workplace, which sometimes behaviorally creates a toxic culture and can certainly create employee relations issues. Burned-out employees are less likely to go above and beyond for customers or clients, so you really do have a downstream impact on your company’s performance.

On top of that, people who are burned out will think about leaving their job, especially if they think their employers don’t care about them, that they're not caring for them or helping the situation [improve]. Almost half of employees we surveyed this year don’t believe that their company really cares about them. So there also can be a hit from an employee turnover perspective.

SHRM Online: That figure about employees not thinking their employer cares about them is obviously problematic. Why do you think fewer employees think their employer cares about them, and how is that playing into some of the problems we’re seeing?

Hawthorne: That's a really good question. I think it’s driven by multiple things. When you turn on the television, or you read your news online, there is a lot of negativity with what’s happening in the political environment, with what’s happening geopolitically, with conflicts in the world. Inflation has been at an all-time high, so when employees are going to the store or going to the gas pump, their dollar isn’t going as far. A lot of these factors are causing employees to feel like, “Hey, everywhere I turn, there’s this sort of negative pressure. And by the way, I have to go to work, I have to work hard and nothing is changing.” Many employees are telling us that they would actually prefer more time off for personal care than even a pay raise. That’s how important self-care and having the company commit to wellness is to them.

SHRM Online: Very interesting. So what can and should employers do to show employees that they do care and try to correct that statistic?

Hawthorne: It’s incumbent upon employers—both because it’s the right thing to do and because it leads to better performance for their customers—to proactively and actively engage employees around these topics. It’s a matter of reminding employees about taking paid time off; reminding them about available [benefits]; reminding employees that if they don’t feel well, it’s OK to stay at home. We proved for two and a half years that people can work remotely for the most part. And so, if people have the ability to work remotely if they don’t feel well or if their children don’t feel well, giving employees the opportunity to do that—and ensuring they can take time off when they need—is important. It’s also important for companies to give employees opportunities to give back, be able to volunteer, or even donate through payroll because there’s a direct correlation between employee wellness and feeling good about yourself and your company and about what the company is actually doing.

The other thing from the HR perspective is to make all of these offerings, tools and programs understandable. They should be at the ready when people need them so that they’re not searching through the maze of a company portal or trying to call a 1-800 call center for a benefits team. It’s important that companies proactively try to ensure that the employees know what the offerings are, where to find them, and how to use them and have an easy way to access that information.

SHRM Online: Is communication and ease of understanding one of the missing components and a reason why some of these well-being figures aren’t getting much better?

Hawthorne: It’s part of it. I believe that most companies are offering a lot [of benefits], and it’s really about making sure that people know what they have and understand how to navigate through it, because it can be overwhelming. I mean, I work in HR, and I think it can be overwhelming.

It’s about helping employees navigate all of these different offerings. It’s hard, and you can’t just do it at open enrollment. A lot of companies are fantastic at open enrollment: They make beautiful brochures, they have a benefits fair, they bring in vendors. But that’s one time a year. It’s really necessary to engage employees continually: to tell them—and tell them again and again—about the different wellness programs you offer.

SHRM Online: We’re at the beginning of the year. Anything in particular employers and HR leaders should keep in mind about benefits communication and strategy?

Hawthorne: I think it’s a good idea for teams to sit down and say, “What are the key areas we want to focus on in 2024? Where do we need to focus on educating employees? And when do we think that should be done, and how frequently?” [At Aflac], we come up with a calendar and a [timeline] of topics that we focus on every month where we’re engaging vendors. Sometimes we tell stories and post them to our internal portal and have employees go read them at their leisure.

We’ll offer a webinar or an in-person session about a specific benefit a couple of times a month. We do that outside of open enrollment so employees have the opportunity to get educated. We have financial wellness planning sessions throughout the year. And as we bring new employees on, we’re actively engaging them in benefits, too. Sometimes we’ll focus on specific demographics, whether it be women, or employees who are planning families, employees who have children who are getting ready to go to college, or employees who are getting close to retirement.

The other thing employers should think about at the beginning of the year is to talk with employees, ask them for feedback on benefits, maybe conduct a survey. Ask them what they are looking for, what they want help with, what benefits they are interested in. You should ask them, “What else can we do?” Then try to act on the feedback. 

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