Can we all just pause for a moment? Take a deep breath. Hold it for a beat. And then slowly let it out. Folks, our world has turned into a madhouse. And just when it starts to look like things are calming down, we’re smacked in the nose again with things like inflation, a withering economy, a chaotic employment market, and political mayhem.
After scratching and clawing and running like crazy over the past few years, we’re all ready for some peace, deep breaths and rest. But there doesn’t appear to be any of that on the horizon. So, here we are—employees and leaders alike—wondering if we can take anymore and trying to hold it together.
I talk to leaders all over the country, and the same themes keep coming up. People report that they’re lonely, exhausted, angry and scared. Sometimes they report feeling all of the above. The data tells me that mental health has been on a steady decline across a number of different groups—especially in the workplace. Both the people and the businesses they work for are struggling.
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For leaders like you who truly care for their people, this raises the question: How can business and HR leaders support employee mental health in the workplace? We’ll dive into five practical tips later on, but let’s start by talking about what’s foundational for a safe and healthy work environment.
End the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
First thing’s first. Mental health challenges are real. They’re affecting millions and millions of people, and they are not something to be ashamed of. Full stop.
For decades, it’s been taboo to bring up these types of fears, personal challenges or mental health needs at work. Thankfully, that’s changing right before our eyes, but not without a variety of challenges and discomforts. Many leaders want to be supportive, but they don’t even know where to start.
Supporting your employees’ mental health starts with ending any existing mental health stigmas in your organization. You must create a new picture of care and support systems for honoring the humans who work for you. And this begins with modeling vulnerability.
Now, vulnerability is not for the faint of heart. It’s for the brave, courageous and strong leader.
So, what does vulnerability look like? It looks like going first.
That means you, as a leader, must lead by example and talk about your own challenges. It’s a gift to your teams when you’re open about your personal struggles—things like being afraid of the unknown, having impostor syndrome, worrying about a sick child, or being anxious about inflation. And it’s also a gift when you share about things you’re doing to care for yourself and your family. Of course, there’s a fine line between openness and oversharing. But don’t let this hold you back from opening up about some of your personal mental health challenges.
The bottom line is this: Your employees need you to show them that their mental health matters, that their workplace’s culture is for—not against—them, and that their leader is in this with them.
Create a Healthy Company Culture
Another key piece for a safe work environment is having a positive and unified company culture. This can be a cornerstone for honoring and supporting your team’s mental wellness. In a recent SmartDollar survey of 3,000 employees, 1 in 3 respondents said they currently work in a toxic workplace. Ouch. So, what does a toxic company culture look like? Here are some toxic workplace red flags to look for:
- Team members don’t feel safe to communicate openly with leaders
- Illegal, dishonest or unethical behaviors—especially by leadership
- High team member turnover rate
- Pressure to constantly work long hours and neglect work-life balance
- Team members constantly fear failure or being fired without warning
- Gossip and work-related drama
- Passive-aggressive communication
Let’s break down some of the psychology here. As humans, our brains are always asking three basic but super loaded questions: Am I safe? Do I belong? Does this feel good?
If your employees don’t feel safe, don’t feel like they belong personally and/or professionally, or if they don’t feel good about their role, their contribution or their colleagues, it will be difficult for them to be engaged, productive and loyal to the business.
So, it’s the leader’s job to create and maintain the support structures needed for a healthy company culture. That might mean having things like a counseling reimbursement benefit, paid time off to see a counselor, designated time for personal development, intentional time for connection and community, or maybe even just permission to go for walks or unplug for a moment.
In addition to providing those support structures, there are loads of behaviors and practices you can implement as a leader to support employee mental health. Let’s talk about several of the most simple but effective things you can implement.
5 Ways to Support Employee Mental Health in the Workplace
1. Be present.
Business and HR leaders need to establish a practice of making themselves and mental health resources available to their employees. This includes being present and empathetic to pain and stressors employees may bring into work. But that doesn’t mean you should play therapist to your employees. The workplace is not the place to heal deep traumas or sling around armchair diagnoses. Instead, being present looks like this:
- Simply being available and having time to listen and engage
- Having a comprehensive referral list for appropriate mental health professionals
- Offering bereavement and grief leave
- Setting up meal trains, gift cards or other limited-time support resources
- Being flexible with scheduling and extra time off as needed
2. Be a good listener.
Being a good listener communicates to your employees that they matter, their needs are important, and you’re looking out for their best interests. Good listeners are present, engaged, and have an active body posture. They use affirming words and culturally appropriate body positioning, and their electronics are nowhere in sight. Good listeners also ask limited but appropriate clarifying questions. And when someone gathers the courage to come talk to you about something they’re struggling with, they commit to never sharing other people’s personal stories unless someone is in danger.
Finally, good listeners must be comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” or, “Tell me more.” You won’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. Your presence and attention are powerful gifts.
3. Model good mental health habits.
Leaders used to live by the motto “Never let them see you sweat.”
That’s a horrible way to lead.
If you want your employees to feel like the company cares for their mental wellness needs, they need to see you model healthy habits. You can’t toss around advice like parade candy—you have to live by it yourself! Your employees need to see you leaving work to attend a funeral, arranging your schedule so you can head out a bit early for a kid’s game, going for walks at lunch, and even taking time out of your workday to go to counseling appointments. You are the billboard that says, “Mental health is a priority at this company.”
4. Encourage employees to actually take time off.
Employees get PTO, sick time, maternity or paternity leave, and they might even get bereavement leave. So, why haven’t we normalized taking time off for mental health reasons? Mental health is just as important to our overall health as physical health.
Say an employee of yours is struggling with depression like so many people do. Some days, that depression is going to make it really hard for that person to even get out of bed, be productive, engage with peers, and really show up fully to work. SmartDollar’s research found that 46% of employees say their mental health has impacted their ability to do their jobs to the best of their ability. And according to a study by Ramsey Solutions, half of all Americans experience stress on a daily basis.
My point is this: For generations, employees have been staying home from work with the flu or a cold or COVID to rest up and heal. The same must be true for mental health in the workplace, and that starts with companies editing their time-off policies to encourage days off for mental health.
5. Provide financial wellness resources.
Mental wellness and financial wellness go hand in hand. If you’re unsure whether you have enough money to save or to cover basic expenses, or if you owe people large amounts of money, your body will signal alarms that you’re not safe. According to SmartDollar’s study, employees report financial stressors as the number one causes of anxiety and stress. That means they need tools and resources to help them manage their money—just like they need tools and resources to help them take care of their mental health.
Offering a financial wellness benefit like SmartDollar tells your employees:
- Your financial health matters to this company.
- Your mental health matters to this company.
- You matter.
The Future of Mental Health in the Workplace Is Not Hopeless
When business and HR leaders value mental health in the workplace, the employees they lead and businesses they work for will both be better off. This work of breaking through the corporate mental health stigma, recreating support systems, and modeling vulnerability will take intentionality, focus and some hard conversations. But a workplace where employees feel safe, where they belong, and where neither money nor mental challenges prevent them from bringing their full selves to work will be worth it.
Want more wellness resources? For more information about how you can help your employees beat money stress with financial wellness, go here. Or for more information on mental wellness, order Dr. John Delony’s new book, Own Your Past, Change Your Future.