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CEOs and Workers Don't See Eye to Eye on Mental Health Assistance

Top leaders underestimate efficacy of workplace programs

A woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of her face.

In a February 2021 survey sponsored by mental health app Ginger, 92 percent of CEOs reported their companies had focused more efforts on mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A similar share of CEOs (96 percent) thought their companies were doing enough to address employees' mental health.

However, only 69 percent of workers questioned in the Ginger survey felt their employers were adequately addressing workplace mental health. Meanwhile, 48 percent of employees indicated they had experienced high to extreme levels of stress over the past year.

"We need to narrow that perception gap, and I think that the only way to do that is through dialogue and communication," said Desiree Pascual, chief people officer at Ginger, headquartered in San Francisco.

Pascual, who is a former therapist, said the disparity between CEOs and employees might stem from a stigma against talking openly in the workplace about mental health. Employers must break through this stigma "so that we can get people the help that they need much earlier in the process," she said.

The percentages of CEOs and employees who think their companies are providing adequate mental health services were higher than expected, said Beth Thierer, LCSW-C, SHRM-CP, director of customer solutions at BHS, a provider of workplace wellness and employee assistance programs based in Baltimore.

"I don't know that companies are doing enough to support employee well-being," Thierer said.

[SHRM members-only resource hub: Mental Health]

Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation's Center for Workplace Mental Health, said she's not surprised by the apparent disconnect between CEOs' and employees' perceptions of workplace mental health offerings. She partly attributes this perception gap to a reluctance by some workers to share their thoughts about workplace mental health outside anonymous surveys.

"The disconnect may result from the distance between the CEO and the employee … CEOs are so far removed from the issues of employee well-being," she added.

That being said, Gruttadaro believes HR professionals are "really concerned" about employees' mental health amid the pandemic and are hunting for solutions to provide help. Pascual noted that while a traditional solution—the employee assistance program—does benefit workers' mental well-being, it can be tough for employees to navigate the maze of the mental health care system.

For CEOs, HR professionals and employees, workplace mental health is a matter of dollars and sense, regardless of whether we're coping with a pandemic. Left unchecked, mental health issues in the workplace can increase absenteeism and presenteeism, drive up health insurance expenses, and boost recruitment and retention costs.

Major depression alone affects an estimated 6 percent to 7 percent of full-time workers in the U.S. A study published in 2015 found that workplace costs accounted for half of the $210.5 billion annual economic burden of major depression in the U.S.

According to SHRM research conducted in 2020, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated what already represented a significant concern in U.S. workplaces. In the SHRM survey, 23 percent of workers reported often feeling down, depressed or hopeless, yet just 37 percent of employees had done anything to address those feelings.

Steps Employers Can Take

Gruttadaro supplies these four recommendations for stepping up mental health initiatives in the workplace:

  1. Make sure leaders of your organization are openly discussing mental health at work, emphasizing that it is a priority for the company.
  2. Check in regularly with employees about their mental well-being through virtual town halls, one-on-one conversations and surveys. Pascual said a once-a-year employee engagement survey isn't sufficient to gauge the problem. Employers must perform more frequent surveys to gauge workforce wellness, she said.
  3. Adapt to change. Do your organization's policies and practices on remote work and time off align with pandemic-created shifts in the workplace? Are managers being trained to show compassion and empathy toward employees who report to them?
  4. Bolster access to services. How easy is it for employees to get the mental health care that they want and need? Are they able to take advantage of tools such as mental health apps and telemedicine? What is your health insurance provider doing to help in this regard?

Gruttadaro warned that if employers don't pay close attention to workplace mental health, they could face an exodus by some of their top-performing employees.

"It's the ones who are your best employees … if you're not addressing their needs on the mental health and well-being side, they'll be the first ones to see the door," she said. They'll "look for an organization that shows they really care about their employees through the actions and policies and practices they have in place."

Pascual said that's particularly true among Millennial and Generation Z workers, who place a premium on the quality of employee benefits. Bulking up your organization's mental health benefits "will make a difference in terms of your recruiting pipeline," she said.

Thierer said employers should be more proactive in educating workers about mental health resources that are available to them and should reduce the stigma about accessing those resources. That's especially vital now, as she said it's become harder for workers to tap into these resources amid a pandemic-era uptick in appointments.

By being proactive about mental well-being in the workplace, "you create the culture where people want to work," Thierer said. As a result, she said, your organization can reduce absenteeism, presenteeism, health insurance costs and turnover.

"You want to work for a company that's supporting your well-being, that's giving you tools related to burnout and work/life balance … . If you don't, [employees] can very easily hop to another company that is going to offer that," Thierer said.

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin.


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