Employees

Why Employees Need Leaders to Lead by Example

We bought mental health tools, but has everyone bought in? Many companies understand the importance of promoting mental health in the workplace. As a result, they have enacted programs and policies designed to put the well-being of their employees first. A recent MetLife survey found that at least 68% of respondents working at companies with more than 100 employees report having a wide range of programs designed to prevent mental health problems. 

To make the most significant impact, a sharper focus on support should become a key aspect of a company’s culture. But cultural values, and the effectiveness of any company initiative, can only be established with buy-in from all parts of the company – management especially. So now more than ever, employers seeking to improve employee mental health must first improve their understanding and involvement in mental health initiatives. 

This article will discuss the role managers play in employee well-being and how to lead by example. First, we’ll look at how employers can impact employees, both positively and negatively. Then we’ll examine how employers can maximize their positive impact as they lead by example.

Understand the Role Managers can Have on Employee Well-being

While most managers aim to support their employees, they may not be aware of how their managerial style can affect mental health. A 2020 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health found that in workforces where leaders and managers whose “quality of leadership” has higher levels of traits perceived as fair, empowering, and supportive, employees have a lower risk of reporting mental distress. Similarly, teams that embody these same traits show a more “protective, prospective effect on employee mental health.” 

On the other hand, passive leadership predicts higher levels of role ambiguity, conflict, and overload – all of which lead to psychological work fatigue and have been shown to influence overall mental health negatively. 

Without a doubt, managers play a huge and direct role in the mental well-being of their employees. However, managers also play a more indirect role. The example they set for employees may increase – or inadvertently decrease – how likely they are to engage with mental health resources and initiatives. Employers that show little buy-in to health initiatives may unwittingly diminish the perceived importance of these programs, thereby limiting employee participation. The stigmas associated with mental health mean that many employees may not be initially willing to bring mental health conversations into their workplace. They may require the encouragement of their managers before they can do so. 

Support Your Employees and Lead by Example

HR professionals are acutely aware of leadership’s important role in bolstering workplace wellbeing. According to Unmind’s 2022 Mental Health Trends Report, 76% of HR professionals believe senior leadership needs to boost their well-being IQ. To drive real, long-lasting change, workplace leaders must work on supporting the policies they seek to implement. You can accomplish this by being seen modeling healthy behaviors, creating open channels of communication, and continuing to learn.

Model Healthy Behaviors

Modeling healthy behaviors can be one of the most effective ways to show your employees your commitment to mental health. Unfortunately, according to a recent MetLife survey, only 1 in 3 employees believed that their organizational leaders lead by example when it comes to mental health. This included sharing their difficulty with stress, burnout, depression, and other mental health problems. While it can be difficult to talk about personal mental health challenges, doing so is one of the best ways employers can continue to destigmatize mental wellbeing. 

Modeling healthy behaviors such as those described above, in conjunction with others such as establishing breaks, encouraging time off, and creating divisions between home and work can underscore leadership’s commitment to inclusivity and communication. Most importantly, doing so may give employees the push they need to open up about their issues, thereby allowing managers to help them or guide them to the resources they need. 

Create and Maintain Channels of Communication with Employees

Opening up about personal mental health is only one part of the solution. Managers must also strive to create and maintain open communication channels with their employees. This will help them feel comfortable sharing and ultimately resolving their challenges.

Encouraging discussion and openness is a critical component of supporting employees. But unfortunately, not everyone feels comfortable or has had a positive experience opening up.  A recent survey by Mind Share Partners found that less than 40% of employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work to other colleagues, their managers, and HR. Furthermore, only about half of the respondents (49%) described their experience as positive.

Managers must assure their employees that opening up about mental health will be met with support and care.. Letting them know that leadership is an ally in combating – rather than a contributing factor – to workplace stressors. The Mind Share report also found that employees who did feel supported by their employers were twice as likely to talk about their mental health at work. In addition, employees reported higher job satisfaction and were more likely to stay with their company. 

Keep Learning

Unfortunately, the ongoing shifts in workplace dynamics suggest that mental health in the workplace will only continue to garner importance. Despite this, most managers lack formal training on mental health issues, which means that even though employers might be willing to help and support employees, they may be unable to do so. 

Formal training sessions and making mental health support resources available to all levels of leadership will help employers deal with employee mental health more effectively. Training and support will also tell employees that their issues will be taken seriously.

In leading by example, employers are taking on a more dynamic and effective role in supporting employee wellbeing. While it may not always be easy, doing so is the best way to drive real change and create an open, healthy workplace where employees can thrive. 

DEI

The Critical Intersection Between DEI and Mental Health

Pandemic-related mental health is undoubtedly top-of-mind. In addition, there tends to be an uptick in dialog about mental health this time of year because May is Mental Health Month. Yet here’s what I’m thinking a lot about recently that extends all year long: the critical intersection between mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)

While both topics have grown exponentially in discussions among leaders, they have often grown in tandem. However, it’s important to tie the two together. It’s a junction where belonging, health, happiness, and productivity live. But the key is to understand how they intersect and what that means to leaders who want to foster a positive workplace.

The State of Mental Health

The research and stats continue to illustrate that COVID has propelled us into a mental health crisis. In a report by Mental Health America and Surgo Foundation, “The COVID Mental Health Crisis in America’s Most Vulnerable Communities: An Analysis of the US Cities Most Impacted by COVID-19, Poor Mental Health, and Lack of Mental Health Access”, the researchers hit on an important societal issue. A community and workforce’s access to mental health services – especially for underserved populations – is a DEI issue. Period.

“Mental health benefits: A key component of DEI,” a 2021 article in BenefitsPRO, connects the dots by stating that if an organization is going to be committed to DEI, then mental health benefits must be part of the picture. So, ask yourself, are accessible, impactful mental health benefits part of your organization? And even if you say yes, there is still work to do. And it’s interesting to look back a year later and see what mental health needs were unmet before, during the height of the pandemic, and today.

Create Paths to Help

What has become abundantly clear is that organizational management – and HR leaders, especially – must include mental health benefits, resources, and services with a special lens on underserved and high-risk populations. We expect government entities to pave the way, but every company should also take proactive steps to provide its own inclusive, healthy community. (The article was published under different titles to appeal to various HR professionals, including the aptly named DEI That Ignores Mental Health Is Doomed in HRAdvisor.)

The piece states, “Mental ill-health is often a symptom of lackluster DEI within companies, and specifically among minority demographics… Regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, a majority felt that they had experienced barriers to inclusion. McKinsey’s research supports the argument that certain demographics are more likely to feel less included. Among those groups are entry-level employees, women, and ethnic or racial minorities.”

“When someone’s race, identity, and sense of who they are, are repeatedly questioned and used against them, their mental health is affected. When those kinds of questions and attacks happen within the workplace, the individual and the company suffer.”

Foster DEI to Support Mental Well-Being

Let this remind us that the conversation isn’t simply about COVID-related mental health, although that’s the world we live in at this minute. DEI leaders need to ensure that the workplace always fosters inclusivity to support mental well-being proactively.

Other problems that can impact mental health and a feeling of safety at work for marginalized populations include lack of representation/misrepresentation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other stressors that can be hard to see. A solid DEI approach ensures that (1) leaders are trained to watch for these issues and (2) employees have access to resources to manage or mitigate these concerns.

According to Forbes, “Managers can be the ‘first responders to address mental health in a crisis. Training, educating, and empowering managers to lead on both mental health and inclusion – and how the two intersect – can speed up needed support to employees from diverse backgrounds. Managers may be in the best position to handle these sensitive issues with individual employees, helping to answer questions, address concerns, and direct people to the best available resources.”

First, Find Your People

The CDC published data about racial inequities that continue to plague our health care system. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought social and racial injustice and inequity to the forefront of public health. It has highlighted that health equity is still not a reality as COVID-19 has unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.”

That information doesn’t require much of a leap to the gap between underrepresented populations and mental health resources. The right DEI strategy should incorporate holistic, proactive approaches to address mental health needs, especially for groups that have never received or considered support.

The Connection Between Mental Health and DEI

So how do we draw this line between mental health and DEI? What’s interesting is that it’s truly about perspective. Reaching rural, LGBTQ, ethnic, religious minorities, youth, and other groups can be challenging. But it can also be extremely fulfilling, allowing a culture of inclusion and a celebration of differences to shape an organization.

You would be well-served to take an audit of your DEI strategy. Where does it address mental health? Is it proactive? Is it realistic? Are there proper communications plans to inform employees about resources?

These questions may reveal what’s next – and I beg you to take more than a quick look. See what’s working and what’s not to take a macro and micro look at how to improve. HOW are WE making mental health a priority for ALL of our people? How can we start at the top and make it actionable throughout the organization?

Tech Innovation Can Help Close the Gap

During the last few years, one noteworthy stride has been an increased capacity by the medical community to interact with patients online. Zoom therapy wasn’t much of a “thing” a few years ago. But improved technologies and a growing savviness for online medical appointments can drastically improve our reach into underserved populations.

A fascinating interview in Forbes addresses the ripe market for a tech disruption in mental health. This points to a promising future for organizations invested in closing the gap between mental health and all kinds of populations. The article covers the importance of how connecting underserved people with the technology they need to stay up-to-date is essential.

Some interesting tech innovations in this area include, “explicit measurement-based care efforts integrated within virtual behavioral health solutions, expansion into other modalities of care such as coaching, and continued consolidation in the space.”

“Additionally, many vendors are expanding their treatment modalities from just teletherapy with a mental health professional to things like virtual coaching. Finally, tons of funding is going into condition-specific startups, including those focused on substance use care, autism, etc.”

Opportunity is Knocking

This topic offers hope. There is a real struggle right now as the fog of uncertainty has not lifted, and mental health aftereffects reverberate like aftershocks. It’s discouraging to know there are underserved populations and people who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles. It’s not an easy task to look at the gaps in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. But we can make positive changes here. Armed with the correct information and a willingness to ask hard questions, organizations can use DEI initiatives to make actual societal change.

Mental Health Awareness

How and Why to Honor Mental Health Awareness Month at Work

Mental Health Awareness Month is here again. For leadership, it’s a critical opportunity to reassess how your organization supports the mental health of your workforce, and plot out a more effective course to do more.

Why do more? Mental health has never been more important. The pandemic not only brought the issue to the forefront but also exacerbated it. In a post we published last fall, the author called today’s mental health challenges a “bittersweet lesson.” I love that term (and his post is definitely worth a read if you haven’t already). Covid-19 and its impacts have forced leaders to look at mental health not just as a factor in performance, but in retention as well, and by extension, the whole enterprise. We’ve also seen how a whole range of factors — being minority, lgbtq+, having an existing mental health condition, or being in a difficult work situation can turn a minor issue into a major one.

So I’d say there’s some real urgency here. But one of the blind spots I’m finding among leaders isn’t a commitment to do more. It’s a commitment to understanding how mental health is interwoven throughout the world of work right now.

Connect the Great Resignation and Mental Health

Let’s acknowledge that most leaders don’t have the time or the bandwidth to play connect the dots on their own — another reason why occasions like this can be so useful. But even among top-notch HR teams and benefits experts, certain problems tend to get siloed in order to get solved. Triage is not a holistic approach, but mental health is.

Take one enormous — and nearly universal — a challenge facing workplaces: the Great Resignation. Some 47.8 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in 2021. This unprecedented wave of quits hit many sectors. It’s certainly still happening. And it has everything to do with mental health.

Attrition and Unhappiness

There are those who argue that the real reason for this surge of voluntary departures is opportunity, not discomfort; ambition, not unhappiness. They point to the hot jobs market as an irresistible chance to try the “grass is greener” approach, despite all that their employers have done for them. They note that younger generations have a different mindset when it comes to how long to stay in a given job. The urge to career climb may drive some to great heights — and you should celebrate that — but it doesn’t account for what’s happened with nearly 50 million people.

There’s plenty of tangible evidence that when employees aren’t happy, they try to find a place to be happier. It could be employees not feeling valued and workplaces being too toxic to thrive in. (For more on toxic workplaces and how to identify and then fix them, we published a great post that still holds true.) So while it may be easier to point your finger at a workforce getting too big for its britches, I don’t recommend it. While you do, you’re likely still losing employees.

Job Dissatisfaction Goes Deeper Than we Like to Admit

So why do people really leave? A recent Pew Research survey of more than 6,600 employed U.S. adults found that the top reasons cited for leaving one’s jobs in 2021 are all related to mental well-being in some form. These include low pay (63%), lack of opportunities for advancement (63%), and feeling disrespected at work (57%). Nearly half of the Pew survey respondents cited childcare issues (48%). Others said they were frustrated by a lack of flexibility (45%). A hefty portion of respondents (43%) cited the need for better benefits, including health benefits and paid time off.

Conditions of employment? Perhaps. But all of these are factors known to play a well-established role in either promoting or detracting from emotional and psychological well-being. Concurrently we’ve seen a rise in conditions such as anxiety and depression: from pre-pandemic to January 2021, reported symptoms of anxiety or depression among U.S. adults jumped from 11% to 41%. 

What Mental Health Really Means

This isn’t a judgment, it’s an observation: While organizations tend to know what they are required to do in terms of regulations, they don’t necessarily know how to best improve mental health in the workplace. There are clear rules spelled out by the ADA, FMLA, and other legislation that help maintain clear guardrails about workplace culture, clinical support, pre-existing conditions, benefits policies, and more. But it may be easier to focus on staying within legal compliance for the organization’s sake than drilling into why these actions are so important in terms of the workforce’s sake.

I’m also finding that most leaders — particularly in the C-Suite but also high-level HR execs and managers — have their hearts in the right place. But we all need more guidance on where mental health begins and ends in the workplace. Bottom line: these days, given the blurred lines between work and life, I don’t know that it ends at all. But it does help to know what mental health stands for: an umbrella term for hundreds of conditions, clinical or not, that comprise emotional, psychological and social well-being.

Ensuring a healthier, productive workforce starts with understanding who you have,” one of our contributing authors wrote recently. I’d concur — though it’s also important to understand the nature of your workplace, virtual, hybrid, on-premises, flexible, shifts, supervised or not. And you need to understand the overall culture of your organization — not just your projected employer brand — and how that plays a role in mental health. I’ll give you one example: Organizations that made “innovate!” a key imperative in their work culture are unwittingly (or not) putting employees under an undue level of stress, and may be increasing their own workplace attrition rates. An MIT research team found that the pressure to innovate is actually one of the primary drivers of attrition.

Factoring in the Costs of Unhappiness

In mid-2021 the Great Resignation caused at least a 1.1% rise in the rate of inflation, according to the Chicago Fed; and it’s certainly having an impact on the global economy, the supply chain, and the bottom line.

We also know that the cost of replacing employees who leave can run as high as $1500 per hourly worker, and note that the figure was calculated pre-pandemic — the costs could be even higher now. SHRM also estimated that for every salaried employee we lose, it can cost the employer 6 – 9 months of that employee’s salary to find a replacement. That, too, was a pre-pandemic metric. From that perspective, there’s a business case to be made for making sure your organization is doing all it can to support your workforce’s mental health.

Get on the Bus: 10 Actions to Celebrate Mental Health Month

To honor Mental Health Month, use the time to assess all the factors that contribute to and detract from emotional, psychological, and mental well-being in your workplace. Then, commit to making meaningful improvements. This isn’t a time for performative gestures, it’s a time to take actions that count. So here’s a quick list of possible strategies:

1. Invite full participation.

Enlist the whole organization so that anyone that’s interested can participate (inviting participation is itself a form of promoting mental health).

2. Make the month different.

Treat the month as an occasion. Consider making some radical changes for May to see if they have an impact on mental health in the workplace. For instance: make a month-long policy allowing for a half day personal break once a week, no questions asked. Try a no-contact after work policy, so people can decompress and work doesn’t come home with them. Bring in meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and exercise instructors for virtual or in-house classes. Provide access to on-demand webinars and courses about self-care, mental health, and staying balanced. Bring in SMEs to talk about mental health issues. When the month is over, ask your teams what they enjoyed, and what they would want to continue.

3. Assess your mental health benefits.

Have a summit with your benefits teams and providers to see what can be added to your mental health offerings. For instance, could you offer telehealth with therapists? What about childcare/caregiver support? How hard would it be to build more mental health support for your existing program?

4. Evaluate DEI in your work culture.

Discrimination, bias, and feeling isolated for one’s identity can take an enormous toll on individual mental health. Look at how DEI is working in your culture. You may want to reach out to those who may be feeling isolated or disadvantaged to get their take. Make a safe space for women, minorities, LGBTQ+, and others who may feel disenfranchised to speak their minds.

5. Check on the impacts of your workplace conditions.

Are your employees feeling a sense of connection if you’ve shifted to remote or hybrid working? If not, look for ways to increase it, and build community no matter where people are. What safety policies have you instated to make your workforce feel less at risk if they have come back to the office? If you’re all on multiple messaging and communication platforms, is there a way to scale back and free up some mental space?

6. Take the workforce’s pulse.

Survey all your employees on their state of mind. Make sure it’s clear that this is confidential, but invite and make room for candid input — not just pre-set answers.

7. Check in with your managers.

Reach out to your managers about their own mindsets, as well as the state of things on their teams. Your managers remain a direct line to your employees. Their mental health will certainly have an impact on the people who report to them.  

8. Evaluate your recognition and rewards programs.

Recognition and rewards are the most tangible proof that employees are valued and supported by the workplace. Don’t underestimate their power to boost self-esteem and a sense of belonging.   

9. Bring in leadership for a workplace roundtable.

Having a Q&A with leaders on issues of mental health is a great way to get leaders involved. Topics might include mental health awareness, emotional well-being, workplace stress, and mental health benefits questions. 

10. Track the results for the month.

Track data on your efforts the same as you would any other: mental health has its own metrics. Participation, survey results, questions asked in a Q&A, how managers rank key issues, and much more should all be shared, and used to take further actions to improve your mental health support system in the workplace. Bonus points if you conduct an open debriefing, where not only do you share the data, you invite your workforce to weigh in on their own experiences over the month.

Conclusion

Use Mental Health Month for a reckoning — but don’t stop there. Every time we talk about mental health on our #WorkTrends podcast (for just two great examples, head here and here), the conversation feels like it wants to continue. So keep it going. Steering the organizational ship is inherently complex, and decisions need to be made with context, clarity, and humanity. But they also have to be made with compassion, commitment, respect, and hope.