As workers reassess their priorities in the wake of the pandemic, mental well-being has climbed up their lists. In fact, more than one-third told the Society for Human Resource Management they would choose mental health benefits over higher pay. Yet fewer than one-third of HR professionals—the “people people”—say offering mental health resources is a high priority for their organizations.
The specter of an economic slowdown looms large over the current business landscape. Employers seek strategies to survive and thrive in the face of economic headwinds. They are looking to workers to be more productive and more efficient.
However, there is a temptation to push employees to work harder—to “grin and bear it.” This runs counter to everything we’ve learned about the importance of mental health and the well-being of workers.
For employees to perform at their best, they must be at their best mentally. Sacrificing mental well-being is just not sustainable. It may produce results in the near term, but it eventually leads to diminishing returns as workers burn out and disengage. Unless we fully address mental, physical and overall well-being, workers won’t have the agility, stability and resiliency to endure economic instability and workplace challenges.
Our businesses aren’t insulated from people’s individual struggles. For years, we believed in the myth of compartmentalization, wherein you come to work and leave your home life behind—as if work and life don’t impact each other. But in reality, life is a part of work and work is a part of life. Whatever we experience in life can, and likely will, impact our work ecosystem in some way.
For people whose lives are unraveled by battles with anxiety, depression or addiction, the line between life and work is blurred at best and sometimes nonexistent. Rather than be blindsided by it, we would do well to get ahead of it—to invest in our workers’ mental well-being. As my friend Arianna Huffington, founder of Thrive Global, told me recently, “When employers prioritize mental health, they are also doing what’s best for business.”
It’s not just our workers who face mental health hurdles. As caregivers, their children’s and even aging parents’ struggles become their struggles. In December 2021, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread,” Murthy emphasized.
These children aren’t dealing with mental health issues in a vacuum. Undoubtedly, these mental health challenges impact their families, including their parents, who care for them. Ultimately, those parents carry these burdens into work. Could we blame them for being distracted and disconnected throughout their workday?
Addressing mental health at multiple levels means meeting workers where they are. At a base level, this involves offering the tools and techniques to manage stress. Workers also require access to comprehensive resources—up to and including coverage of diagnosis and treatment—to meet their mental health needs.
The investment in mental health isn’t just the right thing to do for people. It makes good business sense. According to the World Health Organization, every dollar invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and ability to work.
As we eschew the negative stigma surrounding mental health, we give workers permission to preserve and protect their mental wellness. Organizations should be committed to developing workplace cultures where mental wellness is prioritized—where workers are empowered to pursue self-care.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.
Photograph by Cade Martin for HR Magazine.