chapter 4

supporting employee mental health and well-being

If a pandemic can have a silver lining, it may be that workers' mental health became an area of intense focus over the past year. The stresses, strains and anxieties brought about by the pandemic, from financial worries to concerns over health and virus exposure, brought mental health to the forefront of many conversations — something many say was long overdue. But now that supporting employees' mental health is a major point of concern for employers, what are they actually doing about it?

new anxieties give way to new benefits

Though we won't know the pandemic's true toll on employee health and wellness for years to come, we do have reason to be optimistic about at least one thing: employers' eagerness to protect workers' well-being.

In fact, two out of five (41%) workers surveyed told us their employers began offering new health and wellness-focused benefits during COVID-19. Among them, flexible work hours were most prevalent (20%), followed by general health and wellness benefits (14%) and mental health assistance (12%).

Meanwhile, when our Workmonitor survey asked workers what they wanted most from their employers, a quarter (27%) said they wanted formal policies on work hours to help keep a proper work-life balance. Another quarter (24%) said they welcomed strict and clear protocols for onsite and remote working, while another quarter (24%) reported they wanted their employers to conduct regular surveys about their well-being and their perception of the organization. 

And there's a good reason why these benefits quickly set the bar for forward-thinking companies: Against a backdrop of the pandemic, racial justice demonstrations and a divisive election, people are more anxious.

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roughly two in five adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic — up from one in 10 who reported these symptoms in the first half of 2019.

And when it comes to essential workers, who have been such a vital resource during the pandemic, the impact of poor mental health is more pronounced, with essential workers being more likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder than nonessential workers (42% vs. 30%, respectively).

Of course, beefing up mental health and wellness benefits comes with a cost — but it's one that employers should be happy to pay. Why? For starters, the global cost of poor mental health in terms of lost productivity, absences and turnover alone is around $2.5 trillion annually. But employers can also expect to receive an average of just over $4 for every $1 they spend on effective mental health initiatives.

In other words, investing in health and wellness isn't just the right thing to do — it also comes with measurable ROI.

how businesses are rising to the challenge

With such obvious business benefits to be gained by improving employees' mental health, it's no surprise that companies are quickly coming around. Prior to the pandemic, many companies were already beginning to prioritize workplace mental health (oftentimes to meet employee demand), but those initiatives were thrust into the limelight at the beginning of the pandemic — and the data shows that leaders took notice.

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86 percent of respondents said mental health became a higher priority for their company in 2020.

In fact, a recent survey of HR and benefits leaders found that 86 percent of respondents said mental health became a higher priority for their company in 2020. Coupled with that stat is the fact that 54 percent said their employees now have higher expectations in regards to mental health support from their employers.

they're creating a more open and supportive culture around mental health

That means keeping a pulse on how employees are feeling, having leadership model openness to remove the stigma around mental health in the workplace and creating open feedback loops to determine what employees need to do their best work.

they're providing transparent information about whom to ask for support

This can be as simple as establishing a central mental health services contact — one with deep knowledge of the company's mental health benefits who can even help coordinate appointments — so employees don’t have to figure out where or how to get care.

they're providing ongoing training around mental health

From the top down, training and education holds the power to debunk myths around mental health and develop the critical skills needed to identify concerns in employees and facilitate positive conversations around mental health at work.

they're expanding the portfolio of mental health benefits offered

Whether it's increasing the number of annual mental health visits covered per year, providing additional paid mental health days, subsidizing subscriptions to meditation and wellness apps or holding company yoga sessions, there's a lot of room to get creative when it comes to supporting employees with their mental health.

Employers that take these findings to heart and implement similar policies won’t just have an easier time keeping their top performers — they’ll get more performance out of them too. Among workers who said their employers took steps to ensure their health, safety and well-being during the pandemic, 30 percent said they were now motivated to work even harder and be more productive.

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