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Local Service Partners

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  • 13 September 2022
  • 1 year

Emerging Trends and the Future of Employee Mental Health

Emily Fournier

Content Specialist

Throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, both leaders and their employees wondered when things would “return to normal.” As we head into the second half of 2022, many organizations have accepted that there will be no going back to pre-pandemic operations—and that to stay afloat, they must adapt accordingly. As employers struggle with burnout, poor retention rates, and increased absenteeism among their employees, new research has underscored the demand for organizations to address the growing mental health crisis happening across the globe.

“I think what we see overall is that the ongoing trauma that people have experienced during the pandemic is obviously impacting people today in a way that is a bit hidden, meaning you have a number of people who are still quite stressed about what happened,” admits Jean-Baptiste (JB) Gruet, Chief Revenue Officer. “It doesn’t impact everybody, but there is a substantial portion of the population that is tired, so there’s a tendency for burnout.”

This tendency for burnout, according to a recent report from Indeed, has afflicted over half of employees (52 percent) in the last year, with 67 percent of those employees attributing their feelings of burnout to the stress of the pandemic. In its wake, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also revealed that global rates of depression and anxiety have increased by roughly 25 percent—even doubling in some countries—while a study from the Harvard Business School found that more than 85 percent of employees experienced a decline in their overall wellbeing since the start of the pandemic.

With over nine in 10 workers touched by mental health challenges by the age of 30, and with looming financial, climate, and political crises continuing to undermine their stability as they struggle to manage their work, life, and personal responsibilities, employees are recognizing their need for better work-life balance and mental health support, and are increasingly considering the role that their employers play in providing that support. According to a recent BestColleges survey, 89 percent of 2022 college graduates say that work-life balance is important to them when looking for a job or staying with an organization, while 74 percent of respondents argued that achieving that balance requires effort from both employees and their employers. Similarly, a recent report from Mind Share Partners found that an overwhelming majority of sampled employees (91 percent) believe that their organization’s culture and practices should support their mental health.

As the world continues to tread through an era of uncertainty, organizations will continue to face pressures from their employees to take steps toward protecting their wellbeing. To do so, it is imperative that organizations stay up to date on current trends regarding employee mental health, including predictions of what the future of employee mental health will look like as the workplace continues to recover from the pandemic.

The Future of the Workplace & Employee Mental Health

  • There will be more disruptions, and they will happen more often. While incidents that disrupt the operations of the workplace have always occurred—natural disasters, wars, market crashes, civil unrest, and previous viral outbreaks—the level of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented; no region of the world has remained untouched by the virus, and virtually no one has carried on these last two years with their work life unaltered. As the world approaches the two- and half-year mark since the WHO declared a pandemic, organizations are ready to be done with it and move on. But as variants continue to emerge, driving cases and hospitalizations once again, many countries are learning that unfortunately, the pandemic is not yet behind us; as an example, Gruet points to China—who earlier this year ordered a lockdown of over 26 million residents in Shanghai after an outbreak driven by the Omicron variant—as a warning to those hoping to no longer hear about it.

“As we’ve seen, China recently had another lockdown. They thought they were done, but they’re not going to be done,” admits Gruet, adding “overall, most countries believe that things are better and that the pandemic is behind them, but it’s not over.”

As COVID-19 continues to place substantial strain on healthcare systems and attack both individuals’ physical and mental health, more viruses once believed to be dormant or contained have started to pick up and ignite additional outbreaks, exploiting individuals’ weakened immune systems and exacerbating already heightened rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues that will continue to impact the workplace.

Not only are these rates driven by the pandemic, but other incidents, such as disruptions to the economy, the environment, and social and political climates have and will continue to endanger employees’ wellbeing.

“Ninety-five percent of severe cases that we see are pandemic related,” Gruet says, “but we also have political unrest—the George Floyd incident, for example, and now the crisis in Ukraine,” he adds. “When it’s not a pandemic, it’s fires, or it’s inflation—like what’s happening currently in Europe, the US, Canada, and pretty much every single market around the world. And so, I think we’re going to see a continuously high level of disruptive events, and that means a high level of people who are in distress.”

Another factor Gruet attributes to more frequent disruptions to the workplace is the ongoing climate crisis, coupled with employees’ increasing level of media exposure to these disasters, including those that are taking place in different parts of the world.

“With wildfires happening across Europe, prolonged droughts, floods, and storms, people are really anxious about planet Earth—what we call eco-anxiety,” Gruet explains. “With that, I believe we’re going to start seeing a lot more cases where clients might say, ‘Okay, there’s not necessarily a fire happening in my neighborhood, or my town, or my country, but I can see what’s happening in the news.'”

  • More employees will struggle with severe mental health issues. As the people who were able to work through the pandemic missed out on vacations or eventful and rejuvenating weekends—who might have faced pressures to stay focused on work as their organizations went through layoffs or salary cuts—continue to work through disasters and disruptions, Gruet posits that they are starting to get really tired.

“When we look at the intensity of cases that we deal with, we can categorize them into three groups: low, moderate, and high. The vast majority of cases that we deal with are routine and people are not on the verge of collapse, not dealing with burnout. Then there’s the second group who experience moderate stress and maybe struggle to make it to Friday; and then there’s the most severe group, and the proportion of the severe group is larger than what it used to be,” Gruet admits. “We always had people who were stressed or depressed, who were on the verge of burnout or struggling with suicidal ideation. But the ratio of that proportion was very tiny, but now it’s intense. It’s not as bad as the peak that we had during COVID-19 back in May 2020, but it’s still significant.”

To contextualize these high rates of severe cases, organizations can reflect on employees’ experiences with their mental health over the last year. According to the American Institute of Stress, a staggering 94 percent of workers reported experiencing an unusually high level of stress at work in 2021, while a 2021 report from Deloitte revealed that among Gen Z and Millennial workers surveyed, nearly a third reported to have taken time off work due to the level of stress and anxiety they experienced as a result of the pandemic, while 40 percent of those who continued to work reported feeling “stressed all the time,” putting employees at a higher risk of fatigue, cognitive weariness, emotional exhaustion, diagnosable mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, and burnout.1 These conditions, along with the increasing pervasiveness of disruptive and traumatic events, can push employees to their breaking points if they are not sufficiently addressed or treated.

On top of uncharacteristically high case rates, Gruet also adds that the level of stress employees are struggling with individually is unprecedented. “People are now in complete distress—or hyperstress, which is a fairly new term that people were not even talking about before COVID-19,” he argues, explaining that this high level of stress is usually observed after terrorist attacks, school shootings, earthquakes, and other large-scale traumatic events, and historically would only make up a very small percentage of cases. “But now, I think we are heading to more difficult types of cases,” Gruet warns. “It doesn’t have to lead to suicide, but there’s something between being stressed and depressed, and being burnt out and suicidal.”

In a recent report, the American Psychological Association (APA) characterized this in-between state as being in “survival mode,” as an overwhelming majority of polled Americans reported to experience high stress due to the pandemic, inflation, supply chain issues, the crisis in Ukraine, nuclear threats, and global uncertainty.

  • Some employees will struggle more than others. Historically, younger and marginalized employees experience disparate rates of adverse mental health outcomes; for example, research has shown that LGBTQIA+, Black, and Latinx employees are all significantly more likely to report and experience new or worsened symptoms of poor mental health including anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic, and are likely to experience them for longer durations of time.2 This is unsurprising, given that these groups historically face bigger challenges when it comes to their mental and physical health due to societal conditions that put them at a greater disadvantage. With the emerging monkeypox outbreak fueling homophobia and racism and jeopardizing the health and safety of LGBTQIA+ and Black communities, these employees will likely continue to report disparate rates of depression, anxiety, burnout, and suicidal ideation.

Another demographic predisposed to an elevated risk of mental health disorders, as well as symptoms of stress and burnout, are working parents and caregivers. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the CDC among parents and caregivers, a whopping 85 percent of respondents with both parenting and caregiving responsibilities experienced at least one adverse mental health symptom in the past year, such as stress, anxiety, and depression, while another report revealed that over 50 percent of caregivers experienced suicidal thoughts. Among reported stressors include pandemic-induced trauma, financial strain, domestic chores, loss of childcare, fears for the health and safety of the children, elderly, or people with disabilities in their care, and concerns for their children’s mental health; for female caregivers, loss of employment has also been a major stressor, as the Census reported that approximately 10 million mothers in the United States were not working by the start of 2021, a figure disproportionately made up of non-white single mothers.

Women in general made up of a majority of pandemic-related job losses, accounting for more than 5.4 million net job losses since February 2020, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center. As women and caregivers return to work—with many caregivers still struggling to access child care or elder care, limiting their available hours and potential workloads, they are likely to face more challenges regarding lack of support, relatedness, and connectedness, in addition to challenges regarding access to mental health treatment and benefits, flexibility, and stigma.

  • Employees will continue to prioritize their health and wellbeing—and will want their employers to do the same. As employees grapple with unprecedented levels of stress, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and the physical symptoms that come along with them, they are starting to become more open about talking about them in the workplace, utilizing benefits, services, and programs that their employers offer, and seeking professional treatment. According to Mercer’s 2021 Health on Demand report, nearly half of employees with access to mental health benefits said that they would be more likely to stay at their job if they had access to mental health benefits than if they did not.

As more employees continue to take advantage of employer-sponsored benefits, and feel more comfortable about expressing their mental health concerns in the workplace, there is also an increasing pressure being placed on employers to get involved. The results of APA’s 2022 Work and Well-being Survey reported that a strong majority (81 percent) of screened employees agreed that how employers support mental health will be an important consideration when looking for future employment.

  • More employees will leave their roles and quit their jobs. In tandem with more severe mental health issues and increased attention paid towards mental health needs and concerns, is the continuation of high rates of employee turnover. According to PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey conducted in March of this year—which polled over 52,000 workers across 44 countries and territories—about one in five workers are planning to quit their jobs this year, with many of them citing meaning as the driving factor in their decisions, including feeling supported by colleagues and employers, feeling that they can be their authentic selves, and finding their job to be fulfilling.

Other conditions of the workplace, including compensation, flexibility, autonomy, workload, and culture are having a tremendous impact on employees’ already vulnerable mental states, and are also motivating employees to leave their positions. According to a new survey from FlexJobs, the top reasons respondents gave for quitting their jobs included a toxic workplace culture, inadequate salaries and compensation, poor management, no remote work options or flexibility, little or poor benefits, and inadequate personal time off or sick leave. The good news, according to Gruet, is that employers are starting to recognize that their employees need help, and are now considering what they can do as leaders and as individuals to support and promote better mental health in the workplace. With so much out of organizations’ control these days, making adjustments to accommodate employees’ mental health needs at work will be crucial to maintaining a productive workplace.

How Organizations Will Adapt to These Trends

  • Organizations will demonstrate a stronger commitment to their employees’ mental health by offering more versatile and holistic wellness support. According to the 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report released by Wellable Labs, nine in 10 of surveyed employers said that they planned on increasing their investment in mental health programs in 2022, including investment in resiliency and stress-management programs (76 percent) and mindfulness and meditation programs (71 percent), recognizing that mental health support can and should go above and beyond clinical support. Other programs that more organizations are adopting include peer support groups and employee resource groups (ERGs) or affinity groups, which gives employees the opportunity to establish social connections and receive support from their coworkers, in addition giving them the opportunity to provide support as well, which can benefit their own mental health in return.
  • Organizations will shift to hybrid or remote work models. According to Mercer’s The Future of Flexibility in the Workplace report, few employers who adopted more flexible work models as a result of the pandemic plan on retracting them post-pandemic, as nearly 90 percent of surveyed employers said they planned on keeping or expanding flexible work. The report also revealed that while only one in 30 organizations had at least half of their staff working remotely before the pandemic, now nearly one in three organizations say that at least half of their employees will be out of the office. This transition to remote working comes as a recent FlexJobs survey found that 81 percent of screened employees cited flexible scheduling as their biggest need to attain a better work-life balance, while 70 percent claimed that working remotely would improve their mental health.
  • Organizations will provide more virtual employee mental health benefits and telehealth service options. Of the employers who said they would be increasing their investment in mental health programs in the Wellable Labs survey, 72 percent claimed that they would offer these programs mostly or completely virtually, including on-demand fitness classes, health education programs, and wellness coaching. Additionally, 80 percent of employers stated they planned on increasing their investment in telehealth services, recognizing the demand from their employees for flexible mental health solutions. As Gruet notes, while it is good news that people are more willing to access mental health resources, and that employers are more willing to provide such benefits, employers have to make it easy for them to receive care in a timely manner and in a way that is conducive to their needs.

“You’re still going to need to give employees choices—like phone or video services,” he argues, adding, “for employees, it’s about the convenience of how quickly they can access support, the convenience of modality, and then convenience of the type of support that they can get—and then of course they want it in a timely manner. They’re expecting to be helped now, not in a week or two weeks or a month from now.”

How Employers Can Respond to these Predictions

  • Leading the change and targeting stigma. While employees are becoming increasingly more comfortable with talking about their mental health at work, there is still a large majority of employees who do not feel safe to do so, citing stigma around both mental health and help-seeking. In a 2021 McKinsey report, a staggering 80 percent of surveyed workers reported stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, while another study revealed that over 80 percent of workers with a diagnosed mental illness do not inform their workplace as a result of persisting stigma. In order to improve discussions and treatment of mental health in the workplace, employees are voicing their desire for their employers to develop a more open and mindful workplace culture. According to a 2021 McKinsey report, 80 percent of surveyed employees believe that implementing an anti-stigma or awareness campaign would be useful to alleviating workers’ discomfort, uncertainty, or shame in discussing their mental health.

An effective way to reduce stigma in the workplace is to lead by example, and demonstrate positive mental health and wellness behaviors, including being vocal about one’s own struggles with mental health, utilizing provided services and benefits such as mental health days or paid time off, speaking openly about accessing therapy or health and fitness facilities, and regularly checking in on staff to give them the opportunities to voice their mental health concerns and to ensure that they are using resources and understand how and where to access them. Giving mental health the space that it is due in all aspects of the workplace—including all organizational meetings, events, trainings, and programs—is the best way to promote employee health and wellbeing.

  • Addressing mental health as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative. More employees are recognizing mental health as a DEI issue, and want their employers to do the same. According to BestColleges, recent college graduates consider fair treatment of all employees and corporate social responsibility as important factors to consider when exploring new employment opportunities. As mental health issues continue to disproportionately impact certain sectors of the workforce, including BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ employees, working parents, and caregivers, in order for mental health initiatives to be effective, attention must be paid toward ensuring that all mental health benefits, resources, and services provided are inclusive and equitable. This requires taking into consideration how underrepresented or more at-risk employees prefer to access support, whether online, in-person, in a group or individual setting, for example; and what type of support they need, whether clinical, emotional, financial, or practical. Employers can also seek to provide additional benefits that may not be traditionally recognized as mental health benefits, such as child care or elder care services, coverage for gender-affirming treatment, or extra paid time off for working parents or caregivers to attend medical appointments.
  • Providing greater mental health education and wellness training for employees. While countless studies show that more employees are feeling more comfortable about talking about mental health and seeking treatment, gaps in mental health knowledge and persisting stigma surrounding openly talking about mental health render employees hesitant or unsure how to support their coworkers during mental health challenges. That said, employees need access to better mental health education, including trainings on how to notice signs and symptoms of poor mental health in oneself and in coworkers, how to talk about mental health issues to coworkers, and presentations on different types of available support, what their purpose is, and how and when to access them.

Employees have also expressed increasing interest in programs that promote better health-behaviors and self-care practices. In a study conducted by Mental Health America in partnership with Flexjobs, surveyed employees enumerated the types of programs that they would like their employers to offer both virtually and in-person, including meditation and yoga sessions, nutrition and fitness classes, and webinars on various mental health topics. In its recent survey, BestColleges also reported that 2022 college graduates would like to gain better time management skills and have access to gym memberships. Other examples of potential programs include financial wellness programs, smoking cessation programs, and stress-management programs.

  • Mitigating work-related stressors and improving work-life balance. In order to encourage employees to practice better mental health and self-care behaviors and to prove that they are effective in improving employees’ mental health, these anti-stigma initiatives need to be implemented in tandem with adjustments to factors of the workplace that may induce overwhelming stress, anxiety, or other adverse health symptoms; factors including heavy workloads, monotonous work, little recognition or feedback, poor communication, little flexibility or autonomy, and hostile work relationships. By giving employees the ability to better manage workloads, employers can restore their feelings of agency needed to perceive these challenges as conquerable, strengthening their mental health.

According to BestColleges’ survey, in order to maintain a better work-life balance and foster a greater sense of autonomy and competency, recent graduates are particularly interested in working for employers who promote resiliency skills such as better time management, the ability to say no, and the ability to detach or unplug from work when not working; nearly half of respondents also reported that non-linear work days and the ability to choose their own hours was another workplace factor they believe is necessary for work-life balance. 2022 graduates have also expressed the desire for more opportunities for growth and development, specifically upskilling and reskilling, as a recent LinkedIn survey found that 40 percent of Gen Z employees would be willing to accept a 5 percent pay cut in exchange for career growth opportunities.

Additionally, as employers make the permanent shift to remote or hybrid work models, they need to ensure that there is equitable treatment of remote, in-person, and hybrid employees, and that all have the means to achieve a work-life balance and access mental health care including social support from their coworkers. A 2021 report released by Kahoot! discovered that there is a strong bias against remote workers, as six out of 10 HR leaders queried admitted that employees who work in the office are more likely to get promoted or receive a raise due to the fact that they’re seen as harder-working and higher-performing compared to their remote coworkers—a bias corroborated by public statements from senior executives, including Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of WeWork. Not only does can this stigma negatively impact remote workers’ mental health, it can also perpetuate mental health inequities as studies have shown that women and people of color are more likely to work from home than their white and male coworkers.

As employers and employees alike grapple with the truth that there will likely never be a complete “return to normal,” employers can take this opportunity to shift workplace structures, policies, and practices to usher in a new normal that prioritizes employees’ mental health and wellbeing, alleviates inequities and barriers to health care, and builds resiliency against future disruptions to the workplace. By staying up to date on trends, and promoting an open workplace culture where employers listen to and collaborate with their employees on mental health initiatives, employers can begin to build that resiliency and protect the efficiency and longevity of their organizations.

Workplace Options helps individuals balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class member support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more email us at service@workplaceoptions.com

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

References

  1. The American workforce faces compounding pressure. American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/pubs/reports/work-well-being/compounding-pressure-2021#:~:text=Nearly%20three%20in%20five%20employees,effort%20at%20work%20(19%25).
  2. Ellingrud, K., et al. (2022) Diverse employees are struggling the most during COVID-19—here’s how companies can respond. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diverse-employees-are-struggling-the-most-during-covid-19-heres-how-companies-can-respond

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