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Aligning Workplace Culture with Employee Mental Health: 6 Steps to Success

A group of women talking in an office.

​Last year, nearly all HR professionals (94 percent) believed organizations could improve workplace mental health through the provision of benefits, according to SHRM's Mental Health in America: A 2022 Workplace Report. But today, workers and experts are saying benefits and self-care perks alone don't address the root causes of the burnout and exhaustion crisis in the workplace. 

The just-released 2023 Mental Health at Work Report from Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focusing on workplace mental health, reveals that workers want changes that go beyond traditional health benefits and self-care apps. In fact, 58 percent of surveyed workers rated a healthy, sustainable work culture as "very or extremely helpful" for their mental health, while only 35 percent of them rated self-care resources as "very or extremely helpful."

Treating Causes vs. Symptoms

The World Health Organization (WHO) supports workers' preference for a heightened focus on workplace culture. The WHO says burnout "result[s] from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." In poorly managed work cultures, employees are less productive and sicker because: 

  • They lack healthy boundaries between work and life. 
  • Work hours and workloads are unsustainable. 
  • People are not recognized for their work. 
  • Toxic workplace relationships may exist.  

"At an organizational level, [culture] translates into whether your business is built upon a model of human sustainability or built in a way that churns and burns your people," said Bernie Wong, principal and senior manager of insights at Mind Share Partners. 

Culture Change Is Hard

While a supportive workplace culture may be more supportive of employees' mental health, it's typically harder for organizations to change workplace culture than to offer wellness-related perks.

"Workplace culture is the water that people swim in and the air they breathe each day," said Sue Haywood, president and owner of Human Resource Blueprints, an Ontario-based HR consultancy. "There isn't a full realization of the hidden costs of an unhealthy workplace culture, including on mental health, long-term retention, absenteeism-related costs, future benefit costs, and beyond."

Driving cultural change is hard because "it's about changing the minds, behaviors and sometimes the values of diverse groups of individuals, all of whom have their own set of values, behaviors and habits," Wong said. Change management efforts require more consistency and focus than offering a meditation app.

But the financial value of aligning workplace culture with mental health is clear. "A meta-analysis done by Deloitte found that awareness-raising efforts around mental health have an almost 6-to-1 average return on investment (ROI) compared to reactive approaches you can buy off the shelf [e.g., a self-care app], which have a 3-to-1 average ROI," Wong explained.

The bottom line? You get nearly twice as much bang for your buck from investments in culture change versus reactively treating symptoms.

Actionable Steps to Change Workplace Culture 

So what steps can organizations take to change workplace culture and improve employee mental health? 

1. Support learning. "Learning can happen in different ways and can serve as a bridge to access [mental health] resources," Wong said, "but it also starts culture change because you're equipping your agents of culture change with the knowledge and skills they need to drive change."

2. Leadership advocacy. C-suite leaders should share their personal experiences around mental health. Advocacy is a way to catalyze conversations and create safe spaces because workers don't often hear leadership discussing mental health. "Traditionally, leaders who showed vulnerability were perceived as weak," Haywood said. "But today, leaders who've overcome mental health challenges actually show more strength than those who say they've never had a problem." 

Of course, leadership advocacy must be consistent. "Leaders who talk about the need to have healthy boundaries but then send emails to employees after hours can breed further resentment or mistrust," Wong said. "They need to walk the talk."

3. Iterative steps. There's no single magic step, or series of defined steps, that works for every industry, function and organization. But appropriate first steps might encourage your workers and managers to discuss maintaining a sustainable workload or establishing healthy boundaries between work and life. 

Further steps could involve having employees talk about their different working styles or what they need to prioritize outside of work. 

4. Don't drive all initiatives from the top. Bottom-up initiatives tend to work better. They need support from the top, of course, but the work has to start with creating an environment where employees feel safe discussing what they want from a mental health perspective. "If, for example, employees say they'd like an environment that's more supportive of flexible work hours, the leadership team could take action by starting a pilot and measuring the results," Haywood said.

5. Start with confidential conversations. Depending on the organization's level of mental health awareness, initiatives might benefit from starting out as confidential, allowing people to share anonymous feedback. You can then move to more in-person and group dialogues where people don't feel singled out. 

6. Don't forget middle managers. Much of the workload in driving culture change is on midlevel managers who interact with employees daily and must back up words with actions. 

Managers need to be prepared for this role. "Conversations around work and mental health are hard, so managers need to learn not to jump to conclusions," Haywood said. "After all, who knows what's going on in an employee's life? If you have an open dialogue, you can understand where the person's coming from, and that requires managers to listen with empathy and without judgment."

Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Today's workers, especially younger ones, have more awareness of the negative impacts toxic work cultures can have. "Newer generations already care deeply about mental health and know what they want," Wong said, "so employers can either step up and be part of the solution, or they can get dragged along." 

Employers need to go back to basics on workplace culture, concludes Haywood: "Offering wellness apps but giving little or no attention to workplace culture is like eating unhealthy 95 percent of the time, but then eating salads as an occasional snack. That won't work. Benefits should be on the side," and fostering a workplace culture that supports mental health should be your nutritional staple. 

Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer in Boston.


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