News and Insights

Employee Mental Health Challenges Are a Pressing Business Issue

May 25, 2023

In early May, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that the COVID-19 public health emergency was ending. May also happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, a perfect time to acknowledge the pandemic’s long-term effects on our psychological well-being.

The pandemic triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression globally, according to the World Health Organization. Here at home, 76% of U.S. employees reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition—including stress, depression or burnout—during the previous year.

All this has a profound negative impact on working relationships, the workplace environment and the work itself. “When people feel anxious or depressed, the quality, pace, and performance of their work tends to decline,” noted a 2022 U.S. Surgeon General report on workplace mental health. People can’t compartmentalize their working and non-working selves. We’re human, after all.

What can companies do about employees’ mental health challenges? There are no easy or off-the-shelf solutions. But step one is understanding the problem. To that end, last fall, FINN Partners’ Global Intelligence Team conducted research on employee mental health in the United States. Our findings validated that the American workplace is a source of stress and anxiety for people—and a difficult place for anyone experiencing stress or anxiety for any reason.

In this context, companies seeking to protect employees from harm would do well to prioritize their mental well-being as much as their physical safety. This doesn’t just improve job satisfaction, productivity and reliability. It’s the right thing to do. Here’s what our research found.

Research on employee stress

  • Jobs and finances cause people the most stress.

We asked people to name the top cause of their stress in one word. Money, finances and work came out as the biggest culprits.

  • Many employees feel that their work-life balance is out of balance.

Our research found that 30% of U.S. employees blamed their job stress on an unsatisfactory work-life balance. Young employees in particular are struggling to walk the tightrope. Nearly 60% of workers ages 18–29 said their work-life balance was having a negative effect on their mental health, a significantly higher percentage than among older workers.

  • Many employees say the workplace environment itself is stressful …

More than 40% of employees in our research felt that their workplace culture fostered a “high-stress environment.” However, the vast majority still don’t think of the office as a place where they feel comfortable discussing the subject of mental health, much less seeking help. If your boss thinks it’s all in your head or lacks the tools to have a constructive and empathetic conversation about mental health, why bother bringing it up?

  • … but many leaders don’t agree.

Only 21% of leaders in our survey agreed that the workplace fostered a “high-stress environment.” This striking gap sometimes reflects a generational divide, with leadership often from an older generation that addressed mental health issues outside the office, if at all. However, the disconnect makes plain that many executives don’t have visibility into their employees’ day-to-day experiences.

Supporting workplace mental health is a long game.

Healthy workplaces can promote positive mental health and well-being by providing purpose, structure, identity and economic opportunities. Delivering these things requires leaders to prioritize their workforce in a real way.

“Leaders often call their workforce their most valuable asset, and right now their most valuable asset is struggling,” notes Betsy Henning, head of FINN’s Global Employee Engagement Practice. “The best leaders view this as both a human problem and a business problem.”

You can start by educating your senior leadership on the importance of maintaining a workplace where mental health isn’t a taboo subject, and where discussing the issue is not only accepted but encouraged. Helping people managers understand how to have conversations with their team members about their well-being is especially important. Why? An employee’s experience with their manager is the most important indicator of how supported they feel at work. By empowering managers to talk about well-being, you’re supporting employees, too.

Employees want work-life flexibility, but that looks different for everyone. Some workers are fine with returning to the office, while others prefer to be 100% remote. Many probably fall somewhere in between. That means the days of managing a workforce as one entity are gone. Creating the conditions for employees to define how they work most productively proves to them that your organization cares about their needs. That’s no small advantage for companies looking to find and keep talent.

To ensure you’re providing the mental health benefits employees most value, conduct employee surveys to ask what they want.

Employees want mental health leave and more resources overall for dealing with anxiety and depression.

None of this is easy, especially for complex organizations. But keep at it. Find the people who care about people in your organization, and make supporting them your mission. “Communicate you care, communicate with kindness, and back it up with meaningful actions,” Henning says. “Even small acts can prove to employees you see them and you’ve got their backs.”

And for all employees, that can make all the difference.

Watch our recent webinar

I also invite you to listen to a webinar I recently co-hosted with Betsy Henning, the head of our Employee Engagement Practice. We shared more about the research the Global Intelligence team conducted and offer more solutions for companies looking to create healthier workplace cultures for their employees.

POSTED BY: Barry Reicherter

Barry Reicherter