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12 April 2022

What Leaders Get Wrong About Mental Health

Jairek Robbins

With the pandemic beginning to show signs of coming to an end, it is time for us to take a closer look at the ruins that have been left behind, the most significant being the impact on mental health. The loss of loved ones, the uncertainty about what is coming next, and the loss/disruption to people’s jobs has taken the general standard of mental health to an all-time low.

In fact, a McKinsey poll found that 37 percent of Americans reported either seeking mental health treatment or being diagnosed with a mental health condition in 2021. This is a worrying statistic, especially in light of the World Health Organization estimate which puts the number of people across the globe suffering from depression at 264 million. This is just one of the common mental health issues out there!

For business owners, the current mental health crisis is a timely wake up call. It is now normal for issues of mental health to be discussed at the workplace, and the stigma about these conditions is easing at a societal level.

Mental health programs are no longer optional

About 83 percent of all American employees say they are drained emotionally by their work. This statistic comes from none other than Mental Health America, and it should concern you as an employer. The so-called “Great Resignation” is in full swing, and such emotional drain could be one of the reasons why people are quitting their jobs in droves.

To retain your current employees or even attract new talent calls for setting up a robust mental health policy that actually works, rather than a document which gathers dust on shelves.

Expectations are changing

Research shows that nearly 70% of knowledge workers, regardless of whether they come to office or work remotely, are in agreement that the mental health of employees should be a responsibility shared between the employees themselves and their employers.

Put differently, you as an employer are expected to be proactive in setting up mechanisms through which the mental health of your employees will be enhanced, and you are also expected to meet part of the cost of addressing the mental health problems of your employees should such illnesses arise.

In other words, an employer who thinks mental health is of no concern to them will soon find themselves without employees, and they will be unable to recruit others given the existence of platforms like Glassdoor where employees can leave reviews accessible to anyone interested in learning about a given workplace.

Demographics are changing

By 2026, Gen Zers who are currently aged 18-23 will constitute a whopping 82 million of the total U.S. population, and they will form a sizeable fraction of the workforce by then. Why should this concern you as an employer? At the moment, the Gen-Z demographic reports feeling a lot more stressed than any other age group.

Their heightened stress levels will manifest at the workplace, and employers who aren’t equipped with systems to help this group will be in a very prickly position. It is a well-known fact that stress affects productivity, job satisfaction, relationships and virtually every aspect of life.

So, what is an employer to do to promote mental health at the workplace?

One size will never fit all

It is important for employers to realize that wellbeing means different things to different people. For example, having a yoga instructor pass by to take employees through a session to boost mental wellbeing will be of little help to an employee who is struggling financially and is perpetually anxious about their situation.

It is therefore far better to have in place different mechanisms through which the specific threats to mental wellbeing are identified and (hopefully) addressed. We don’t mean that you hand out financial bailouts to struggling employees- rather, you can point them to the right resources which are beneficial in their particular circumstances.

Pay special attention to workplace culture

Having a core value about mental health and sticking some notices on notice boards in your business premises will mean nothing if the culture of your workplace isn’t conducive for mental wellbeing.

It is far better for you to lead by example and establish a workplace culture which promotes respect for all, makes employees feel safe to voice their concerns, and nurtures an environment of trust which allows everyone to share their vulnerabilities.

Such a positive work culture will be more helpful than including mental health benefits among the perks your employees get. In fact, the need for such benefits will gradually dwindle as the right culture takes root since many potential root causes of mental health issues will have been nipped in the bud.

Address work-related triggers

An unrelenting heavy load of work will take a toll on the mental health of your employees just as micromanaging those employees will be stressful to them. Equally important is the need to plan for the career growth of employees so that they are equipped with the skills that they need to take on the evolving demands placed upon them by the changing nature of work.

As these issues are resolved, employees will be more resilient mentally and the workplace will be more conducive. Employee retention, higher engagement and increased productivity will be the results of efforts invested to address workplace-related challenges to mental health.

Ask for feedback

It isn’t uncommon to find organizations that have set up mental health support systems complaining that employee participation isn’t high enough to justify the expense of running those programs.

What is needed in this case are mechanisms through which employees can communicate their needs and how those needs can best be addressed. Employers should therefore keep communication channels open, and even avail mechanisms through which employees can give feedback anonymously.

When there is a chance to voice your concerns anonymously, one is likely to feel safe in conveying their thoughts without reservation, and when that feedback is acted upon, a message is sent to employees that management cares and walks the talk of being concerned about mental health at the workplace.

In closing, don’t be tempted to look at mental health as another cost item you have to add to your already strained budget. The World Health Organization has done extensive research which shows that every single dollar invested in boosting workplace mental health has a $4 payback in terms of increased productivity. So, rather than draining your company financially, taking steps to boost mental health will improve your bottom line!


To Your Success,

Jairek Robbins

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