Mental health affects everything we do. Stress does not leave our minds at the office door, anxiety doesn’t go away in the face of looming deadlines and depression doesn’t magically lift right before a big pitch meeting.
Rates of depression and anxiety in the United States have been steadily increasing for decades. In 2020 and 2021, rates of anxiety and depression were four times higher than levels reported in 2019. It’s often said that people spend about one-third of their lives working, so there are limited ways to separate mental challenges from office spaces.
Something of a silver lining from the Covid-19 pandemic was the spotlight on how our mental health can impact not only our personal lives but our work performance. Companies have been forced to grapple with their role in the heightened anxieties and decreased mental state of their workforce. Encouraging improvements have been made, and organizations are offering benefits like discounts on mental health apps, free counseling sessions, wellness stipends, emotional health classes, and more.
These benefits are a great starting point, but on their own, they cannot solve America’s mental health crisis. Unfortunately, many resources sit unused because workers don’t know about them, don’t have time to use them or feel uncomfortable disclosing emotional and mental needs to their employer.
I believe an answer to this problem is to change corporate culture to better support employees through all of their needs. According to a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 84% of workers say that at least one factor of their job negatively affects their mental health. We have to do better.
It is up to C-suite executives from the top down to foster the kind of work environment that supports employees instead of one that pushes their mental health concerns to the sidelines. Building a company culture that encourages people to say something when they need help starts with building real relationships, creating a positive employee experience, and leading by example of what it really means to integrate work with life.
Isolation is known to contribute to poor mental health outcomes. The rise of remote work over the last two years has offered flexibility to many people, but the pandemic and subsequent isolation have led to increased loneliness. Even in the office, it isn’t uncommon for people to feel alone.
Employers can help to combat feelings of detachment by encouraging employees to create real and lasting relationships. Giving everyone a chance to learn about each other and connect leads to real teamwork and respect.
As work has moved online, creating opportunities for socialization has become increasingly difficult. Fortunately, technology can help fill the gap. Geographically diverse teams can meet up online for live conversation, training, and formal or informal meetings. Video calls can get stale, however, if you don’t change up the format from time to time. Virtual games can add an element of fun to team-building activities.
We all know that empathy is an invaluable leadership trait, but how often do we focus on it at work? And how often do those in management roles encourage the further development of empathy as part of the company culture?
One powerful way for leaders to demonstrate empathy is to share their own experiences. Statistically, one in four individuals will have experienced a diagnosable mental health issue in a given year. I believe it is fair to say that almost everyone at work could be affected by mental health challenges at some point, whether their own or that of a loved one. Talking more about mental health disorders helps everyone feel less alone and may make them more likely to reach out for help as needed.
Another impactful empathy builder is mindful training regarding mental health. Help your employees step into one another’s shoes. An immersive empathy experience is more likely to leave a lasting impact on your team than words alone.
Set The Example
Corporate cultures don’t change without buy-in from workers at every level. Generally, this starts with the CEO. Leaders who actually care about changing the conversation and helping their employees find the mental health support they need will set a real example.
This may look like taking mental health days off, participating enthusiastically in training exercises, taking walks at lunch and inviting others along or actually turning off email notifications after work hours. There are so many different ways to practice mindful mental health care. Leaders who first model these behaviors and then vocalize them at work could help set the tone for the organization. This puts others at ease when their own needs arise and they need to prioritize their mental health.
Managers can also demonstrate the right way to care for others in the company family. Consistent check-ins can help prevent a full-blown crisis. Listening is sometimes an underrated skill. Asking questions that go a little deeper than, “How’s it going?” and waiting for the answer is sometimes enough to get a conversation going. Sometimes workers are looking for concrete solutions to specific problems, and sometimes they just want to feel heard.
Companies that don’t understand that people are their most valuable asset will fall behind in today’s work environment. There has to be a balance between profits and responsibility. Businesses that take the well-being of their employees seriously and build the kind of culture that supports mental and emotional health could find themselves with more engaged workers, lower turnover rates, and ultimately a stronger brand.
First Published for Forbes Human Resources Council by The Game Agency’s Head of Creative Strategy & Innovation Stephen Baer as a member of Forbes Human Resources Council Member