Workplace mental health and emotional support has been at the forefront of HR's agenda in recent years. As the world continues to grapple with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with conflict, war, and escalating global tensions, people need more support now than ever before— including in the workplace. In this article, we’ll walk you through some of the ways in which emotional support and mental health initiatives can be effectively integrated into the workplace. I will also discuss the extent to which HR is responsible for employee mental health, by addressing the following questions: Is mental health the responsibility of HR? In what way and to what extent? What can HR and managers do to support employees with their mental health and emotional wellbeing?
The Current State of Mental Health
First, let’s take a look at the general concept of mental health. Mental health and neurodiversity are extremely complex topics, which can stem from any number of life circumstances and genetics— not to mention the potential effects of socio-economic status and gender identity, and ethnicity. The CDC defines mental health as follows:
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.’
Mental health conditions are vast, and vary in the degree to which they affect people. Common mental health conditions include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across multiple sectors and at various organizational levels. In 2021, 76% of employee respondents in a Harvard Business Review study reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year, up from 59% in 2019. Clearly, mental health has always been a serious issue in the workplace. However, the pandemic, alongside several increased stressors in today’s environment, have served to further exacerbate workplace mental health challenges. It is therefore imperative that leaders approach mental health as an organizational priority.
In the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, economic volatility, war, and increased day-to-day pressures in modern society, it comes as no surprise that reporting of mental health conditions are on the rise. For example, a WHO report stated that in the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%. Loneliness, grief, financial insecurity, and fear— of infection, suffering, and death for oneself and for loved ones have also all been cited as stressors caused by the pandemic, leading to anxiety and depression. Estimates from the latest Global Burden of Disease study also shows that the pandemic has affected the mental health of young people and that they are disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviour. It also indicates that women have been more severely impacted than men and that people with pre-existing physical health conditions, such as asthma, cancer and heart disease, were more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorder.
In addition to the pandemic, another recent global tragedy has also played a major role in many peoples’ mental health: the invasion of Ukraine, which has left those directly impacted by the war either unable to focus and deliver to the same level as before, or unable to work at all. Ukrainian immigrants and others with family in Ukraine, as well as people with refugee backgrounds, may be at greatest risk of experiencing mental health difficulties in the workplace as a result of the war.
Even people who have not been directly impacted by the war, or have not had close friends or family involved in the war, can also experience mental health concerns, such as vicarious trauma, a condition resulting from the bombardment of the central nervous system transmitted through observation, such as through the news and social media. The massive shock to the nervous system can engender intense emotions such as crying, shallow breathing, or lashing out. Other common aftereffects include difficulty sleeping, heightened anxiety, sensitivity to loud noises, or dissociation.
With all of this in mind, it is clearer now than ever before that mental health conditions are on the rise, and that it for sure impacts many people going to work - both those who suffer from mental health issues themselves, but also their colleagues. What does that mean when it comes to our day to day work-life, and what responsibility do managers, HR and others have when it comes to building emotionally supportive workplaces? This leads us to our next question:
Who Is Responsible for Employee Mental Health?
Workplaces play an essential part in nurturing and maintaining positive mental health amongst workers. They can give people the opportunity to feel productive and be a strong contributor to employee wellbeing. However, the workplace can also be a stressful environment that contributes to the rise of mental health problems and illnesses. To prevent a mentally unhealthy workplace, the onus lies on leaders, managers, and HR teams. Here’s one way to break down each role’s responsibilities:
- HR professionals and teams play a critical role in removing systemic barriers that exist today, particularly regarding policy and hiring practices. The role of HR overall is to support people, and so, HR should be the advocate in the room.
- Managers are a key determinant of peoples’ satisfaction in the workplace. Therefore, managers are key players in creating mentally healthy workplaces. Managers also need to develop emotional intelligence (EQ). For example, understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, particularly the need for psychological safety. If workers do not feel safe, then they will never be able to do their best work.
- Leaders and company executives must be committed to mental health as well. Even if a manager models the behavior of supporting their team exceptionally well, it won’t matter if the executive team is not - because it’s really an entire system of practices. Therefore, mental health support buy-in from leaders and top executives is also crucial.
How Can We Cultivate a Mentally Healthy Workplace?
There is still an undeniable stigma around mental health in general, let alone mental health in the workplace. However, the pandemic has created an indirect silver lining: the opportunity for more open and supportive conversations between HR, employees and senior leadership. In pre-pandemic times, HR professionals typically referred employees to external resources to help improve their mental health, rather than providing direct support. Often, employees were left with a lack of follow-up care, and outcomes were rarely tracked or monitored in any meaningful way. However, things are starting to change for the better: HR professionals are not only expected to optimize operations and workflow, they must also take ownership of bettering employee mental health outcomes. HR teams need to leverage available resources and find creative solutions to help employees cope with any and all hardships that may affect people at the workplace, not “just” post pandemic mental health issues. The extent of support will depend on the size and financial capacity of the organization, although non-financial support, such as creating a psychologically safe working environment, is also crucial. Let’s examine how HR, managers, and leaders can optimize employee mental health outcomes:
- Make employees feel represented. Mental health and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are closely connected.Employees from diverse backgrounds often deal with a lack of representation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other stressors that impact their mental health and psychological safety at work. Therefore, HR and management need to prioritize hiring for diversity, give diverse employees a seat at the table, and make sure that employees from minority backgrounds feel safe and seen in the workplace.
- Employ the right feedback mechanisms. Investing time and energy into fostering a culture of continuous feedback can directly increase performance, positively affect engagement and well-being, and even strengthen long-term retention. The first step is creating a work environment where employees feel psychologically safe by way of feedback that is constructive, rather than punitive. Managers must also take care not to avoid feedback altogether, which in itself can be damaging. If feedback is avoided altogether, it inevitably does not create safety, because people know whether or not you’re telling them the truth. Truth builds trust, and trust builds safety!
- Welcome and encourage diverse mental health practices. Staying mentally healthy means different things for different people. Welcome and encourage a range of ways, regardless of what that may look like to the individual. For example, HR departments can help create forums to learn about what works best for individual employees. Instead of organizations lecturing employees about what they “should” be doing for their mental health, have your company ask the employee ‘’how can we learn from you?’’A ‘’one solution fits all’’ simply does not work.
- Instill a sense of belonging. These days, people are feeling more and more isolated. Humans evolved to be social creatures, so managers and leaders need to encourage a sense of connectedness and belonging - even when teams are working remotely. Although tech brings about great mechanisms to connect, these tools are less important than the connection itself. Focus on truly connecting with teams and employees and make everyone feel like they truly belong to the team, and the organization as a whole. This illustration by Emily Chang, gives a good overview of the relationship between diversity, inclusion, and belonging:
- Normalize conversations about Mental Health. Removing the stigma around mental health requires leaders to show vulnerability and lead by example, which is not always easy. When leaders and colleagues are honest about their own mental health struggles, employees will feel more comfortable talking about their own challenges.
- Cultivate a culture of psychological safety. Psychological safety in the workplace refers to an individual’s ability to make a contribution without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. To prevent a mentally unhealthy workplace, it’s the responsibility of leaders, managers, and HR teams to create psychologically safe working environments, which CCOHS describes as: “A workplace that promotes workers' mental well-being and does not harm employee mental health through negligent, reckless or intentional ways.” According to Harvard Business School faculty Amy Edmondson, if leaders only talk about accountability and a culture of performance excellence, they risk employees slipping into the “anxiety zone,” wherein they are too afraid to voice their opinions or raise their concerns. One of the keys to psychological safety is that people feel comfortable voicing their opinions and do not fear being judged. To ensure that teams and individuals are able to voice their inputs and opinions in a safe environment, create some guidelines on how they interact with one another. Examples include:
- Active listening without interruption;
- Accepting varied ideas as valid, accepted, and never judged;
- Not placing blame on a person for voicing their opinion;
- Encouraging and listening to out of the box suggestions, and recognizing that everyone has different perspectives.
- Prioritize emotional training. Training can help to develop effective soft skills, such as empathy, vulnerability, compassion and active listening. Providing “soft skills” enables employees and leaders to better connect with others. By investing in training, organizations are helping employees have difficult and important conversations in safe and inclusive workplace environments.
- Create personalized, working relationships. Although technology can (and arguably should) be leveraged to optimize mental health outcomes, the power of relationships should never be overlooked. Whether you are part of the HR team or in a leadership role, reach out to your employees and check-in to see if they are okay. Although regular check-ins pertaining to performance and trajectory are important, not every conversation has to be about work. Simply acknowledging that we are living in strange and stressful times, and asking the individual how they are feeling can make all the difference.
- Focus on building a proactive workplace mental health culture, rather than a reactive one. Rather than only addressing mental health concerns as they arise (that is, reactively), a good workplace should emphasize wellbeing, and focus on proactively providing positive mental health support. Creating a work environment of emotional wellbeing needs to happen not as a consequence of mental health challenges, but as a barrier against them.
Challenges In Supporting Employee Well-Being And Mental Health
There are a lot of reasons why traditional well-being initiatives have not been successful in the workplace. Here are some of the challenges:
- Lack of openness: Mental health is all too often treated as a taboo issue. It has been historically stigmatized, and this lack of openness can hold back employees who want to open up about their mental health issues. The fear of being judged convinces them to suffer in silence rather than talk about it.
- Lack of expertise: The journey towards supporting mental health can be sensitive, and therefore needs to be handled with utmost compassion and empathy. Lack of relevant expertise in the workplace to develop and manage employee wellness programs has prevented businesses from getting the desired impact, despite effort and money invested.
- Lack of training: Managers are directly and indirectly responsible for employee well-being. Training is key to helping them understand their role in contributing to a healthy work environment. With training and assistance, managers can help their employees be in a safe mental space, which will translate to better workplace productivity and better business results— not to mention happier employees.
Perhaps the biggest reason why mental health is not supported in the workplace is a lack of willingness to commit from leadership. Many leaders and founders are well-versed in business practices, but hold little information about the business value that optimizing employee mental health brings. Fortunately, there’s a real shift happening right now as younger generations come of age and join the workforce. There is less separation between life and work, and people are becoming more open to talk about personal aspects of their lives. As members of younger generations step into leadership roles, we are sure to see a shift in leadership perspectives on mental health.
Mental Health Challenges in the Start-Up Ecosystem
Although burnout and mental health challenges can exist in any work environment, the problem is particularly exacerbated when it comes to start-ups. The startup attitude of “move fast and break things” often creates a culture of overwork and burnout, leading to damaging outcomes for founders and employees alike. Start-ups are also very cautious about alienating any potential customers, and may sometimes shy away from taking a stand on key issues like mental health.
TechBBQ’s Founder Wellbeing Report describes structural factors in the start-up ecosystem that contribute to founders’ predisposition to mental health issues. The anxiety and high levels of stress that start-up founders face can also have a trickle-down effect, impacting employees at every level of a company. This is due to the fact that startups operate in fast-paced and high-pressure environments, and employees and founders can struggle with high expectations, stress and depression.
- Founders often attach their self worth to the performance of the company.
- During the marathon that is venture building, founders often find their initial motivation diminishes as the journey wears on.
- Coping with the emotional toll of a business and accepting that situations are sometimes beyond one’s control can be difficult for founders striving for high performance.
- Lastly, faced with a seemingly endless to-do list and a sense of being always behind, founders often neglect the importance of setting time and energy aside to take care of themselves.
If you are curious to learn more about founder mental health, you can also check out an earlier article published by Session’s CEO Pernille Hippe Brun: Start-up Life: Securing the Mental Health of Start-up Founders - Why Is It Important?, to find out more.
We spend most of our days at work, and the lines between our work and our lives continue to blur. Emotional support and mental health at work are therefore topics that should not be overlooked. In today’s world of uncertainty and anxiety, the need for support in the workplace is more vital than ever. HR, managers and leaders alike need to approach mental health as a priority that is continuously cultivated, rather than something to be addressed when it reaches the point of crisis. We should be working to create psychologically safe workplaces in which employees can comfortably discuss their mental health, should they so choose. In doing so, you will be laying the foundations of emotional support for your team, making your employees happier, and your organization too.