How to nurture a culture of mental health for the long run

Illustration of holistic health By providing training to the entire workforce, employees can collectively contribute to the development of positive and supportive workplace culture.

When asked about their employer’s response to the pandemic, most employees (78%) now feel that their employers genuinely care for their well-being, according to a recent report from The Hartford. And when it comes to mental health progress specifically, 59% of workers in the survey said their company’s culture has become more accepting of mental health challenges in the last year.

Related: Employee mental health in the workplace: What employers can do to help

The increase in acceptance and awareness is being met by real action, too. A 2021 study on employer health benefits reported that almost 39% of employers have made changes to health benefits offerings to meet the mental health needs of employees since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the added support for workforces appears to be having an impact. In fact, one study found that employees who felt supported by their employer in 2021 (61%) reported several positive benefits, including being:

  • Less likely to experience symptoms of poor mental health
  • Less likely to underperform and miss work
  • More likely to feel comfortable talking about mental health at work
  • More satisfied with their job and more likely to stay in their company
    Heather Bolton Headshot
    Dr Heather Bolton is a clinical psychologist and BABCP-accredited cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) therapist. She is Head of Psychology at unmind, the trusted workplace mental health platform. Before joining Unmind, Heather worked in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for nearly 10 years, focusing primarily on improving access to therapy for people with depression and anxiety disorders.

However, despite the positive shift in employer support since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns for employee mental health remain. As the report from The Hartford points out, the strain on mental health continues to significantly affect employee productivity and well-being, with 61% of workers in their survey saying that feelings of depression or anxiety impair their focus and concentration at work.

The cultural trend for organizations to improve awareness and acceptance for taking care of employee mental health is just the starting point to a healthier future – one that creates the space for more open, safer conversations and provides better options for care for employee needs.

The question, now, is how do employers continue their momentum of positive change? The challenge will be scaling programs to reach more workers (through communication and technology) and removing barriers (such as stigma associated with mental illness) to ensure all employees feel safe using the resources available to them.

To do this well and see lasting results for employee mental health, companies must nurture a culture of wellness: one that promotes healthier habits, behaviors, and decisions that permeate all areas of the organization and are continuously cultivated.

Here are a few ways to get started.

Destigmatize mental health at work

Expanded benefits to support employee mental health can only be effective if the workplace culture supports and encourages people to use them. Unfortunately, many employees are deterred by their perception of stigma surrounding mental health and concerns about the repercussions of taking advantage of available resources.

From Hartford’s study, employees’ fear of getting fired or losing career opportunities prevented them from taking advantage of basic benefits, such as additional paid time off. In a Harvard Business Review study, nearly half of those who opened up about their mental health reported negative outcomes, like being labeled “overly emotional,” passed over for promotions, micromanaged by superiors, or given fewer development opportunities. Given this subjective experience, perhaps it’s no surprise that only 30% of employees reported feeling comfortable talking about their mental health at work.

To make a long-term impact on the workforce’s mental health, companies have to work at replacing toxic workplace cultures with one of openness and understanding. A key aspect to shifting the perception of mental health remains in education.

In order to manage mental health and build empathy and compassion for those experiencing symptoms of mental illness, it must be understood throughout an entire organization. To support each other, employees need a basic level of training to recognize when a coworker might be struggling and to know where to point them to for help.

Some signs and symptoms in employees to watch for include:

  • Changes in work habits
  • Changes in physical appearance and demeanor
  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness
  • Outbursts and mood swings
  • Seeming withdrawn or avoiding interaction, if this is not something they’d usually do

The goal should be to build a non-judgmental, open, and supportive culture – a culture where people feel that mental health and well-being are something they can talk about, seek help for, and nurture within themselves and others without repercussions.

Provide preventative training

The principles required to build and maintain a mentally healthy workplace come from the bottom-up as well as the top-down. But many organizations are not wholly on board. For example, one survey found more than half of employees felt uncomfortable talking to their managers and supervisors about mental health.

By providing training to the entire workforce, companies can empower each employee to increase their understanding of mental health and collectively contribute to the development of positive and supportive workplace culture.

Training should give employees the language to talk about their mental health openly, with confidence, and sensitively, and meet the following criteria:

Be practical and ethical. Courses must be designed to improve employees’ knowledge of mental health and give them the confidence to provide basic support to others, but any training must be clear on boundaries, so employees understand that they’re not expected to adopt the role of a counselor.

Be accessible and flexible. Training should be delivered digitally, in easily-consumable formats, and offered in bite-sized chunks. This way, employees can consume content in a manner that suits their preferred approach to learning.

Take a preventive approach. Employees should be taught to recognize the value of proactivity. This includes equipping people to recognize common signs of emerging mental health problems, understand the role of coping strategies, and raise awareness of how to access professional help when needed. Understanding the benefits of early intervention can prevent emerging problems from escalating into something more serious or enduring.

Remove obstacles to accessing care

Increasing the number of employees who have access to helpful resources is key to establishing a wellness culture. Business leaders should consider the following technologies and practices to support adoption and engagement.

Raise awareness. Employees need to understand what tools and resources are available to them and know how to access them. Communication strategies should include campaigns to educate and engage workers in meaningful ways. Make mental health a priority for internal communications by providing frequent and relevant content, training, events, and materials that encourage open discussion about mental health.

Role model. To create a mentally healthy environment, employers must practice what they preach. Managers, supervisors, and leaders should be encouraged to exhibit healthy behaviors and support mental health initiatives through their actions. By treating their own well-being as a priority and role-modeling their use of any benefits, leaders can encourage employees to follow suit.

Implement digital mental health tools. Workplace mental health platforms can scale access to care across the entire organization and make seeking evidence-based intervention easy. These tools should be available on any device, provide a single point of access for all available employee resources, and offer a personalized experience based on each employee’s individual needs and mental health status.

In addition, robust wellbeing platforms should come with powerful tools to measure ongoing use across the organization. In-app surveys can provide individuals with an understanding of the state of their mental health at any moment, as well as how they are progressing over time.

Built-in analytics can pull aggregated data and give companies insight into the mental health of the entire workforce. To continuously optimize, insights on user engagement should be delivered to a real-time dashboard to help leaders understand what aspects of their wellbeing strategy are working, and what changes may need to be made to address broad employee needs going forward.

As companies spend more on mental health and well-being initiatives, it will be critical to sustain the initial impact of those investments to go beyond flash-in-the-pan results. To see lasting benefits, employers must successfully embed new resources and support employees to use them long-term by shifting the culture to one that proactively supports and measures employee wellness across the entire organization.


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