By Taylor Adams
Mental Health America (MHA) recently released its Mind the Workplace 2021 Report to better understand the mental health challenges that employees across company size and industry have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, MHA surveyed over 5,000 employees across 17 industries to learn more about workplace stress, burnout, supervisor support, and financial insecurity. Here are five things from the report that every employer needs to know, and steps they can take to promote a mentally healthier work environment.
Burnout is a serious mental health concern for employees. If 2019 was the year that officially defined burnout, then 2020 was the year of living it. According to MHA’s report, 83% of employees feel emotionally drained from their work, and 25% of employees feel reduced professional efficacy and cynicism towards their jobs and coworkers. Of employees who strongly agreed that they feel emotionally drained by their work, 99% agreed that their workplace stress affects their mental health.
If ignored, burnout can lead to more serious mental health concerns like anxiety or depression. An employer can help prevent or mitigate the impact of burnout on their employees by (1) educating and frequently communicating with managers and employees about the signs of burnout, (2) providing paid time off (PTO), workload management, and position flexibility to all staff, and (3) modeling healthy behaviors such as taking time off or talking openly about job stressors.
Supervisor support is critical to employee mental health. Remember the expression “employees leave managers, not companies”? I would argue employees leave managers and companies (managers and company cultures can both be toxic), but there is no doubt that a fair and effective manager is crucial to an employee’s experience and well-being. I still remember the name of my first supervisor at age 17, simply because his poor and misguided management continues to motivate me to promote better workplace mental health now. Nine in 10 employees report that their workplace stress affects their mental health, but only 2 in 5 employees are receiving the support they need to help manage stress.
If you are a supervisor, consider the following tips: (1) do not be afraid to provide emotional support, like asking “How are you feeling?”, (2) be flexible and realistic about your expectations for direct reports, (3) stay connected with coworkers, particularly in high-stress or remote work environments, and (4) practice self-care, because you deserve emotional support too.
Changing work environments and routines are affecting employee engagement. Work environments have drastically changed over the last year, including the addition of personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing in workplace settings, and shifts to remote work environments. Employees may also have lost childcare services, are homeschooling their children, or are sharing a workspace with spouses, partners, or parents.
MHA’s 2020 survey results reveal that over 65% of employees find it difficult to concentrate because of their work environment, compared to 46% of respondents in 2018. Also, over 56% of employees reported that they spend time looking for a new position, compared to 40% of respondents in 2018. Fortunately, employees who feel acknowledged and accepted at work are less likely to seek out other employment opportunities.
Most employers are not providing a safe environment for employees who live with mental health conditions. For employees who live with mental health conditions, this report’s findings likely come as no surprise. Mental illness in the workplace is often misunderstood and kept quiet, which isn’t exactly conducive to creating a welcoming environment for the people who navigate these issues daily.
Over 56% of employees did not feel like their employers provide a safe and welcoming environment for employees who live with mental illnesses. Less than 5% of respondents strongly agreed with this statement. Five percent! Creating a welcoming environment for employees who live with mental health conditions requires a change in culture, and changing culture requires thoughtful leadership and substantial investment. If your workplace is interested in an assessment of its mental health practices, check out MHA’s Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health at www.mhanational.org/bestemployers.
Employees are feeling the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the report, 58% of employees worry about not having enough money to pay for their living expenses, and 2 in 3 employees cannot save for an emergency. In addition, 34% of employees cannot afford their health care costs. Federal and state minimum wage legislation and poverty guidelines have historically failed to meet employees’ realistic financial needs. Economic insecurity is a well-documented socioeconomic determinant of health, and the pandemic’s effects on employee well-being only reinforces the need to alleviate position and financial insecurity for employees through policy change. In 2020, Congress passed a series of COVID-19 relief packages to alleviate the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the stimulus payments to individuals served as a temporary and inadequate solution for systemic wage and income equality. MHA supports systemic change in minimum wage and income equality policy to ensure all employees feel financially secure, especially in the event of a traumatic event or emergency, such as a global pandemic.
Taylor Adams is the Director of Workplace Mental Health at Mental Health America