Employee Engagement & Retention

Work is Affecting Employees' Mental Health, and We Need to Talk About It

By Sarah Hallam

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

65% of knowledge workers said mental health issues from work negatively affect their home life. As the lines blur between work and home, creating a positive work environment is now becoming a recruitment and retention issue.

Credit: Alvarez for iStock images.
Credit: Alvarez for iStock images.

Three-quarters of full-time U.S. workers reported experiencing at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year, and over a third of symptoms cumulatively lasted five months to an entire year, according to nonprofit organization Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report.

New variables, such as remote or hybrid work policies, are also starting to have effects on employee mental health. According to another study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association of 1,000 remote workers in spring 2021, 65% responded saying remote work was negatively affecting their mental health.

“Being a remote employee comes with different stressors than being fully in-office,” said Becca Olsson, a remote-first creative director for the HR tech OfficeTogether.

“I love having more heads down time to get work done, and having more flexibility in my working hours so I can work when I’m feeling most productive, but that can come with the trade off of having less in-person connection with people, which can feel isolating.”

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The effects on worker productivity have plummeted as a result.

On average, workers reported working at 72% of their full capability in the past year as a result of their mental health, according to the 2021 Mental Health at Work Report.

Absenteeism is also on the rise; workers are taking an average of eight days off per year due to their mental health.

“I think the issue area was definitely at an inflection point, even pre-pandemic, and then the pandemic and a lot of the systemic racism and other global events that have continued to unfold the last couple of years really just poured gasoline on what was already an issue,” said Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners.

Greenwood launched Mind Share Partners more than five years ago, in part because of her own experience struggling with anxiety and depression in the workplace.

“I had a tremendous amount of shame and self stigma around that, and had kept it, you know, really hidden close to the vest, mostly because I was worried about professional repercussions,” she said.

Greenwood now works as a CEO and a thought leader to educate individuals, managers and company leaders on how to create a positive work environment for employees—one that destigmatizes mental health.

Here are some of her observations on mental health in the workplace in the past two years and her best practices to combat them.

Generational gaps

50% of full-time workers have left a previous role due to, at least in part, mental health reasons. But that number rises to:

  • 81% for Gen Z respondents
  • 68% for Millenial respondents

Outside of younger workers, caregivers and those from historically underrepresented communities, all respondents tended to face greater mental health challenges, but were also more likely to feel comfortable talking about mental health at work.

“Mental health is so intersectional with different identities,” Greenwood said. "Underrepresented folks are facing different levels of stigma in their community facing different and higher barriers at work that can make mental health more challenging. So It really is a human issue, which then makes it a company issue.”

From the employer perspective, it’s also a recruitment and retention issue.

On the flip side, those who felt supported by their employer amidst the pandemic were 2.4 times as likely to be satisfied with their job and twice as likely to intend to stay at their company for more than two years.

“It's so critical for founders and CEOs to promote talking about mental health, largely because the people are what you have,” Greenwood said. “if you burn out your people, and create a mental health-unfriendly culture, that really doesn't serve you in the long run.”

Mental health and the C-suite

Mental health doesn’t disappear at the C-suite door, either.

Executive (82%) and C-level (78%) study respondents were actually more likely to report at least one mental health symptom, compared to individual contributors (71%) and managers (71%), according to the Mind Share Partners Workplace Report.

One reason work continues to weigh negatively on people’s mental health is because it is often not discussed, no matter what position at an organization someone holds.

65% of workers said that they had talked about mental health to someone at work in the last year, which is up from 40% in 2019, according to Greenwood. Yet, only 49% of respondents actually described that experience of talking about mental health at work as positive, which is about comparable to Mind Share Partners’ results from its 2019 report.

“I think this shows the need to continue to focus on equipping managers and colleagues with those skills to have these conversations and to help folks navigate mental health resources,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood’s main suggestion for leaders of companies is to be vulnerable.

“I think it's really ideal to get that C-suite involvement, ideally the CEO, stepping up and talking about mental health, why it matters, how you can be successful in XYZ company,” Greenwood says.

To lead by example, Greenwood says she’s seen success at companies where leaders put therapy appointments publicly available on their calendars and encourage all employees to do so. Or to make exercise and lunch breaks publicly available.

“Just putting things on the calendar, and maybe not sending that email late at night all make a difference,” Greenwood said. “And definitely take that PTO.”

Investing in mental health pays off

The silver lining of Mind Share Partners’ findings on mental health in the workplace is that investing in this space pays off, both in employee engagement and trust.

Employees who reported feeling supported by their employer in their mental health were half as likely to report symptoms lasting five to 12 months and five times more likely to trust their company and its leaders.

Greenwood observes that support comes easiest to companies that have a pre-existing culture of connection, which in an increasingly remote world is done through intentionality in almost every decision.

“We encourage folks to have informal gatherings, via Zoom,” Greenwood said. “I know some people are worn out by that, but I think it does make a difference. And in a hybrid world, certainly gathering, at least occasionally to build that personal rapport in person when it's safe to do so becomes that much more important. It’s really important to build that trust and sort of normalcy and check in on each other as humans asking how folks are doing and really genuinely wanting the answer.”

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