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5 ways to improve employee mental health
Start here for positive and supportive workplace practices that can boost employee mental health, company morale, and your bottom line.
Last updated: April 27, 2022 Date created: April 21, 2022 11 min read
American Psychological Association. (2022, April 27). 5 ways to improve employee mental health. https://www.apa.org/topics/workplace/improve-employee-mental-health
Take a critical look at equity, diversity, and inclusion policies
America’s mental health is in crisis. Close to two thirds of adults (63%) surveyed in APA’s 2022 Stress in America poll said their life has been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many reported worse mental health, lower physical activity, disturbed sleep, and increased reliance on unhealthy habits—all of which have an impact on employees’ health and well-being, the workplace environment, and productivity.
As a leader in your organization, you’re likely invested in the well-being of your employees. The workplace—where many spend the majority of their waking hours each week—is often the most structured and controlled environment in workers’ lives, and it is often their primary means of social and emotional support. As such, the workplace is a critical setting for understanding and supporting mental health. Basic care for employees’ psychological well-being is the fundamental expectation—aka table stakes—for today’s competitive and successful businesses.
Equipping workers to manage daily stress and handle the inevitable challenges that affect their mental health costs money, time, and energy. But evidence shows that the cost of failing to support employees’ psychological well-being is often far higher.
Employees with high levels of stress are more likely to miss work or to show lower engagement and commitment while at work, which can negatively affect your organization’s bottom line. Even before the pandemic, employee stress levels were high. A 2017 analysis found the estimated cost of job stress nationwide may be as much as $187 billion, with 70% to 90% of those losses resulting from declines in productivity. And the pandemic has only worsened the situation.
Mental health conditions, sometimes incited or exacerbated by stress-inducing or unsupportive work environments, can be just as costly to employers. The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health reports that the cost of depression alone to the U.S. economy is more than $210 billion annually in absenteeism and lost productivity. According to the Integrated Benefits Institute , depression costs employers $17 per employee per year in disability leave payments. People with anxiety and depression are also more likely to develop potentially costly problems with their physical health.
Positive and supportive workplace practices, on the other hand, can boost employee physical and psychological health, company morale, and your bottom line. APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey found that people who feel tense or stressed during the workday are more than three times as likely to say they plan to look for another job, while employees who feel supported are more likely to stay, reducing the costs of employee turnover. Fostering a positive work environment and making mental health resources available can also help attract top talent to your organization—especially important during the current labor shortage.
Even if you’re already committed to protecting and enhancing your employees’ mental health, it can often be difficult to identify practical ways to take action and enact meaningful ways to make a difference. Applied psychological research in work settings strongly supports five components that are essential to these efforts.
Train your managers to promote health and well-being
Your organization’s leadership needs to be on board to create a psychologically healthy culture. Managers and supervisors who work directly with employees are key to implementing and sustaining your policies and procedures and creating a generally supportive environment. Midlevel managers are often the gatekeepers of employee well-being—they determine whether employees can actually utilize the benefits and resources your organization offers. Without their buy-in, these opportunities are moot for many staff.
Research demonstrates the impact of supervisor and manager training in employee wellness and mental health. Teaching supervisors how to support employees and recognize the signs of stress and mental health issues helps reduce turnover and absenteeism.
Consider training your managers in skill sets that support mental health and positive relationships. Research shows leaders with even three hours of mental health awareness training (MHAT) report improved attitudes about mental health and a higher motivation to promote mental health at work.
Educating managers in respecting work-life harmony—essentially, why it’s important for them to view their employees as whole people with complex lives—can help employees better manage their work and life responsibilities and goals and improve job performance and employee satisfaction. A study on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Total Worker Health program showed that leadership training improved employees’ personal and job well-being (i.e., the program increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover intentions).
Training managers in physical- and mental-health-promoting practices can also help them lead by example. One study found that U.S. Army leaders who were randomly assigned to training about the importance of sleep not only improved their own sleep habits but also passed on those improvements to their soldiers as well. Other work shows leadership training that includes sleep promotion can reduce turnover and improve job satisfaction.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion trainings are also connected to supporting employee mental health. They require leaders and managers to understand and carry out their organizations’ inclusive policies and practices, welcome diverse points of view, and foster a psychologically safe workplace. A welcoming and safe work climate builds trust among leadership and employees, contributes to job satisfaction, and helps minimize job-related stress.
Also, it’s not enough to offer resources without connecting the dots. Organizations should coach managers and supervisors to understand the range of health benefits and programs and to nurture their employees to access those resources.
Increase employees’ options for where, when, and how they work
COVID-19 has brought unexpected responsibilities and unprecedented stressors into employees’ lives, and the workplace must adapt accordingly. According to APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey , 34% of employees say that flexible hours would help their mental health. Additionally, according to an October 2021 Gallup poll , 54% of employees working remotely said they would like to divide their time between home and office and 37% say they want to keep working from home full time.
Research has long supported providing employees with a degree of control over their work environments. An individual’s sense of autonomy (PDF, 258KB) has been shown, for example, to increase their motivation and performance, which can directly impact an organization’s bottom line. Relatedly, survey data (PDF, 763KB) suggest that organizations that are investing in remote-friendly (i.e., more autonomous) work are viewed as creating more psychologically safe and inclusive work environments.
Virtual or hybrid work can provide flexibility for people with caregiving responsibilities, bypass location bias, and even facilitate opportunities for employees of all levels to share ideas by taking meetings out of the often-intimidating conference room setting. But virtual and hybrid work may not be the solution for everyone. The value of a virtual or hybrid approach may depend on an employee’s role, personality, current life circumstances, and work style. Similarly, flexible work schedules may be important for some but not all employees or may be important to a particular employee at one point in time but not at another point in time. The key is to give employees the agency to select from among an array of reasonable options that balance business needs with their personal circumstances.
Take a critical look at what you require from your staff and prioritize effectiveness. Ensure that principles of flexibility and support for effective use of such flexibility are infused throughout the work environment, for instance by ensuring your managers understand the importance of flexibility for themselves and their direct reports. Research suggests that workers with supervisors who prioritize family/work harmony experience greater job satisfaction and are less likely to leave their jobs (and incite costly turnover expenses). Agencies should allow employees to choose from among reasonable work options that balance business needs and employee well-being.
Reexamine health insurance policies with a focus on employee mental health
For many employees, benefits that promote well-being are more important than ever. According to a February 2022 Gallup Poll, 64% of U.S. employees ranked pay and benefits as very important when deciding whether to take a job with a different organization. Further, 61% cite work-life balance and better personal well-being as “very important.” Employees are looking to employers for support. APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey found that 87% of employees say that certain actions from their employer would help their mental health.
Research supports the connection between mental health disorders and decreased work productivity . Treatment for conditions like depression is significantly associated with improved productivity.
Providing a range of policies, resources, and management trainings that foster a healthy and flexible work culture are fundamental strategies for supporting employee mental health. Occupational psychology considers these primary intervention strategies aimed at preventing major stress and mental health conditions. But even with excellent preventive strategies in place, mental health conditions will arise, and employees will need support, making comprehensive health insurance benefits that cover psychological services essential.
At a minimum, your organization’s health insurance benefits should reflect the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act , which requires health insurers to provide coverage for mental health, behavioral health, and substance use disorders that is comparable to their physical health coverage. This law applies to all commercial insurance plans, union-negotiated plans, and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
If your organization’s insurance coverage already aligns with federal policy, consider enhancing your plan to remove both perceived and actual barriers to employees looking for psychological support. For example, choose a plan with out-of-network mental health benefits so employees can access clinicians who may not be in network with your provider. You should also ensure that mental health benefits and resources are easily accessible (i.e., easy to locate), understandable, and support employees across the continuum of mental wellness.
APA offers a guide for employers on what they need to know about mental health parity laws .
Listen to what your employees need and use their feedback to evolve
Forty-eight percent of employees say lack of involvement in decisions contributes to stress in the workplace (APA, October 2021). In fact, a robust body of research suggests that when employees feel they have a voice in organizational decisions , they’re more likely to remain in those jobs. Research shows that the psychological benefits are especially great when leaders not only solicit employee feedback but explicitly use it to inform their decisions.
As one example, you can ask staff for their input on company-wide policies. Use tools like anonymous surveys, town hall suggestion boxes, and focus groups to gather feedback and create specific opportunities to listen to employees of diverse backgrounds. Then, share the results in a transparent way, develop a plan to address one or more of the issues identified, and take action. It’s not enough to use employee feedback—you must communicate any positive policy changes you’ve made based on employee input.
Proactively communicating support to your employees also matters. Survey data during the COVID-19 pandemic found that employees value optimistic, supportive messages from senior leadership (PDF, 392KB) . In companies where CEOs regularly sent encouraging company-wide emails, employees reported higher rates of engagement and a deepened commitment to the organization. All-hands meetings, video messages, and social media can be effective ways to communicate empathy and support.
Take a critical look at equity, diversity, and inclusion policies
Providing an inclusive and equitable work environment is integral to fostering a psychologically healthy workplace and supporting the mental well-being of employees. Experiences of interpersonal and organizational inequity and discrimination are highly connected to stress and can propel people to leave their jobs.
APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey found that Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ workers, along with employees with disabilities, are more likely to plan on leaving their jobs—especially if they’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace.
Data are clear that companies with high levels of diversity perform better , especially when management is diverse. Research has found that companies with diverse management tend to be more productive , by up to $1,590 per employee each year. Policies that effectively ensure equity among all employees encourage the participation of more diverse voices and the generation of innovative ideas, both of which can benefit overall organizational health. Diversity is not just a “good thing to do” but necessary to help businesses thrive. When employees of different abilities or socioeconomic backgrounds feel they have equal access to job promotions and other related incentives, they’ll be more likely to contribute meaningfully while at work. Provide practical tools and resources to develop equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) skills and knowledge and to foster inclusivity, such as APA’s inclusive language guidelines .
Evaluate your company policies and programs to ensure best and current practices around EDI, including supporting people of color, LGBTQ+ populations, and people with disabilities. Engage advisers and consultants with relevant knowledge and expertise to guide your review process.
Consider conducting an audit of your organization’s ongoing EDI work. An audit helps identify areas of high engagement as well as gaps in your EDI policies. It can also inform your organization’s EDI goals and determine where to make changes and improvements.
Revisit your recruitment policies to include diverse areas and universities to ensure you are seeking out talent with a variety of experiences and from a variety of backgrounds. If you are enacting company-wide diversity initiatives, ensure that C-suite leaders participate alongside managers and other employees to encourage and demonstrate buy-in at the top of the organization.
As you implement components like those listed here, keep in mind the difference between what it takes to launch a short-term initiative and to sustain long-term change. Read on to discover additional actions you can take and to learn about other high-performing companies, how they got started, and the positive changes in employee well-being and organizational performance that have resulted from their focus on mental health in the workplace.