Why it’s important to prioritise mental health in the workplace, especially post-pandemic

Marina Kooijmans, Chief People Officer

Every 10 October, World Mental Health Day reminds people around the globe that mental health issues matter and should be supported. Mental health considerations are particularly important in the workplace, where many people spend a third or more of their waking hours.

The last 18 months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, took a toll on many professionals’ mental health, whether we realise it or not. The effects from the pandemic on mental health are not likely to change soon.

A recent global study by Motivosity found well-being has plummeted during the pandemic. Consider:

  • Anxiety symptoms increased from 6.33% to 50.9%.
  • Depression symptoms increased from 14.6% to 48.3%.
  • Stress symptoms increased from 8.1% to 81.9%.
  • PTSD increased from 7% to 53.8%.

The mental health issues encountered due to the pandemic put employee engagement – a factor that’s highly related to productivity, retention and profit – in jeopardy as companies navigate a continued remote work situation.

What’s at Risk?

Changing work environments and always-on work technology are contributing to employee stress. The following aspects of work have suffered since the start of the pandemic.

  • Mental health and well-being: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in January 2021, 41.4% of adults reported symptoms of depressive disorder and/or anxiety disorder, compared to 11% in January 2019.
  • Ability to disconnect: More than two-thirds (69%) of employees have experienced burnout symptoms while working from home since the pandemic, CNBC reports. Despite burnout, 59% are taking less time off than they normally would, while 42% aren’t planning to take any time off to decompress.
  • Work-life balance: Since the pandemic, remote workers in the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and Austria have seen a sustained 2.5 hour increase to the average work day, according to Bloomberg.
  • Workload: For people in diverse industries, from healthcare positions to on-demand workers, workload has increased in demand. Furloughs and job cuts have also increased the workload for many workers still in pre-pandemic positions. According to Harvard Business Review, since the pandemic, out of workers whose workplace well-being has been negatively impacted, 56% have seen increased job demands.

Mental health greatly affects your employees’ ability to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. Mental health issues in work environments can also lead to physical health issues, from heart disease to chronic pain.

To combat these risks and reduce the effect of a pandemic on employees, Deloitte research shows professionals primarily need these three basic human needs met at work:

  • Trust
  • Safety
  • Connection

At your organisation, you can take steps like the following to protect the mental health of your workers and its effects on your business.

1. Increase access to mental health resources

Provide mental health coverage as part of company insurance plans. Offer free counselling sessions from licensed professionals. Expand your definition of “sick days” to include time off for mental health. Promote mental health tips and resources in company newsletters.

2. Consider a drastic change to overall company flexibility

If you have remote employees and are able to, consider having deadline-based work, rather than set office hours. Some employees work better at night compared to early morning, for example. A flexible schedule encourages work-life balance for employees.

Also, consider enabling work-from-home capabilities at least some of the time. A 2021 study reported by Harvard Business Review found 88% of knowledge workers say they’ll look for flexibility in hours and location next time they look for a new position. Hybrid office solutions are highly appreciated by a lot of people. The hybrid office combines the best of both worlds: the comfort of working from home and the necessary social connection in the office.

3. Destigmatize mental health struggles from the top

Show workers you support them by promoting mental health care from the top down. Most people experience mental health issues at some point in their lives. When managers, executives and other leaders at your company share their struggles, that destigmatises the need for mental health support, which might benefit some of your workforce.

4. Express appreciation for your team members

Employee recognition is associated with talent retention, organic growth and employee productivity. Spotlight a job well done in team and company-wide meetings, in online communications and via rewards. Celebrate, even small, successes as a team regularly. It is the little things that matter.

5. Communicate frequently and consistently

Poor workplace communication can lead to stress, unmet expectations and needs, arguments, high turnover, low morale and dissatisfied clients. Keep employees abreast of company developments so they trust in and feel connected to your company.

6. Budget for home equipment

Not everyone enjoys working from home. Gen Z, in particular, is more likely to feel negatively about remote work. 

One challenge of remote work is a lack of equipment. Set employees up for success by providing secure, easy-to-use devices that enable them to complete all necessary tasks. Support them with technology solutions comparable to what you would do for the office environment.

7. Train management in how they can talk about mental health and well-being with employees

Gallup research shows managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement. Managers should be at the forefront of protecting employees’ mental health, by providing their team members with the right resources and support. Offer mental health training to employees and teach managers symptoms to look for regarding emotional distress or substance abuse. Regular check-ins are a great way to support employees. Listening can be very beneficial, to give employees the feeling that they are not alone in a difficult situation. And overall, managers should give employees the feeling they are valued.

8. Look for signs of anxiety and stress

Mental health issues like stress and anxiety can lead to poor productivity, absenteeism and a higher incidence of safety issues in the workplace. Identifying mental health signs earlier can help your business prevent these issues. 

Encourage a proactive and supportive approach. Have managers promote help from qualified mental health professionals to their team members.

Mental health affects everyone

Mental health is an invisible but important part of workplace success. Most people have experienced some type of mental health challenge during the pandemic, whether it was stress from adjusting to remote work, or difficulty finding a work-life balance.

As an employer, you can take a proactive approach to supporting your employees’ mental health. Provide mental health resources, encourage an open dialogue, offer training for managers and company leaders, and acknowledge the challenges your employees are facing. Create a mental health strategy to improve productivity and results for your business, while at the same time improving the engagement and belonging of your people.


Sign up for HLB insights newsletters