The Future of Mental Health at Work Is Safety, Community, and a Healthy Organizational Culture

The state of workplace mental health has shifted substantially in the past four years, expedited by the global pandemic, racial justice reckoning, and other macro challenges. Employers have made noteworthy gains since then by providing expanded benefits, meditation apps, mindfulness programs, mental health days, and awareness campaigns. However, these investments on their own aren’t enough.

In 2019, Mind Share Partners began our biennial Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics to explore the ever-changing landscape of workers’ experiences and perspectives around mental health, stigma, and work. Each report collected nationally representative samples of 1,500 full-time U.S. workers. Each also included statistically significant sampling from historically marginalized populations: women, people of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and more.

This year, our third study uncovered new insights about how workplace mental health has changed from before, during, and after the pandemic. Here’s what we found about what workers want and need when it comes to mental health at work — and how employers can provide it.

The Changing Landscape of Workplace Mental Health

In Mind Share Partners’ inaugural 2019 report, we described mental health as a “crucial factor” in workplace well-being, engagement, and productivity, as well as for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Despite ever-growing rates of mental health challenges, most employers were barely scratching the surface in terms of effective mental health support.

In our 2021 report, we described workplace mental health as being at a catalytic point in time. The prevalence of mental health challenges spiked amid the pandemic, and work itself became a greater strain on mental health. Simultaneously, our collective awareness of mental health grew, too. We were talking about it more and employers were investing in more mental health supports like benefits, meditation apps, and mental health days.

In 2023, the very ethos of work has been undergoing its own transformation. As the world emerges from the pandemic, workers are re-evaluating what truly matters to them, leading to broader trends like quiet quitting, the Great Resignation, and more. Meanwhile, employer investments continue to shift. Some have continued to innovate and improve the workplace experience — for example, by increasing base pay, piloting four-day work weeks, and giving workers greater autonomy over where and how they work. Others have scaled back in hopes of achieving a “pre-pandemic normal.”

Key Findings From Mind Share Partners’ 2023 Mental Health at Work Report

This year’s study shows that mental health isn’t improving in the U.S., but there are some new bright spots, too. Workers are demonstrating greater awareness around mental health at work and are looking beyond traditional benefits and the latest technologies. What they increasingly want is what the research has always shown works: mentally healthier cultures. Here’s what we found:

Workers are shifting from crisis to languishing.

From 2019 to 2021, mental health symptoms spiked and workers’ overall views of their mental health declined. In 2023, we saw a 20% decline in those reporting any symptoms — a hopeful trend. But when asked to rate their overall mental health out of 10 in the past year, workers’ ratings continued to decline. In 2019, 78% gave ratings between seven and 10. In 2021, 67% did. In 2023, 61% rated between seven and 10, with finances and work itself reported as having the greatest negative impacts on mental health.

How is mental health seemingly improving and worsening at the same time? Mental health comprises a diverse spectrum of experiences, from diagnosable conditions and symptoms to challenges like grief, burnout, and stress. And emerging from the pandemic’s many crises alleviated the severity of many mental health challenges at the time.

But workers entered a new world rife with its own challenges: inflation, growing income inequality and poverty rates, layoffs, forced returns to offices, employers doubling down on productivity, and growing tensions between employers and workers amid growing waves of unionization. These issues are social, political, and economic in nature. And while therapy and meditation may certainly help an individual worker to cope, fundamentally solving these issues requires systemic interventions. Many populations, like young people, are still navigating crisis.

Thus, many fell into an overwhelming feeling of, well, “blah,” or as renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant coined in 2021, they’re “languishing.”

Investing in organizational culture outperforms therapy and self-care.

Historically, mental health support from employers has primarily centered around a productized, individualized approach — therapy, apps, time off. This equips workers with the resources to self-manage their mental health on their own time outside of work. At the same time, it also implies that it should be dealt with personally in private.

In the last few years, however, research around the interdependencies between mental health and work itself continued to grow more robust. Burnout in particular was defined by the World Health Organization as fundamentally rooted in poorly managed workplace stress. Similarly, leading burnout researcher Christina Maslach identifies six main causes of burnout: unsustainable workloads, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness, and mismatched values and skills — all workplace factors.

To better understand workers’ needs, we asked this year’s respondents to rate how helpful the following were to their mental health:

  • Mental health treatment
  • Self-care resources for mental health
  • A safe and supportive culture for mental health
  • A healthy and sustainable culture of work

Among all respondents, a healthy and sustainable culture emerged as the clear winner, with 78% rating it as moderately, very, or extremely helpful. This remained true when segmenting outcomes across gender, generation, LGBTQ+ identity, race and ethnicity, caregiver status, and seniority levels. Next highest was a safe and supportive culture for mental health at 67%, followed by mental health treatment at 64%, and self-care resources at 60%.

Growing awareness of mental health among workers also came with a better understanding of what kind of support is truly helpful — beyond simply coping through work. Workers are seeing mental health as a collective workplace responsibility rather than an individual one. Increasingly, supporting mental health at work means fundamentally realigning an organization’s culture with human well-being.

Psychological safety has declined.

From our 2019 to 2021 studies, workers grew more comfortable talking about mental health and developed healthier beliefs about it and those with mental health conditions. Both indicate a reduction in mental health stigma. More workers also reported feeling supported as employers grew their investments in mental health resources.

Entering 2023, however, a paradox emerged. Workers’ personal beliefs continued to reflect a greater awareness and understanding of mental health. However, they also felt less safe talking about mental health at work, were less likely to do so, and felt less supported by their employers around mental health this year — and these declines neared pre-pandemic levels. In fact, workers’ comfort with talking about their mental health to senior leaders nearly halved from 37% in 2021 to just 19% in 2023.

Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising. Despite many employers investing in mental health, many also went “back to business” in terms of productivity, performance, bottom-line costs, return to office plans, and investments in DEI — all while still encouraging flexibility and work-life balance, despite the realities of work making it much more difficult to achieve. Amid mixed signals, workers’ sense of psychological safety within their organizations deteriorated despite greater awareness and healthier beliefs at the individual level.

Investments in DEI are improving mental health and engagement.

In all three studies Mind Share Partners has conducted in partnership with Qualtrics since 2019, people from marginalized identity groups faced disproportionate challenges around mental health and work. This year, women, Gen Z, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ respondents all tended to have worse mental health outcomes than their counterparts; were less likely to get a supportive response when they talked about their mental health at work; and were overall less engaged around job satisfaction, trust, pride, and intent to stay at their employer. These outcomes represent the persistence of cultures and systems that drive not only outright acts of discrimination but also of biases embedded in hiring, growth, and support processes.

The bright side? Employers’ efforts paid off and created meaningful changes to workers’ experiences. Respondents who felt their employer supported their identity showed better outcomes around mental health and the impact of work on mental health and were overall more engaged and committed to their employer compared to those who didn’t feel supported.

The answer to the return-to-office question is autonomy.

The hybrid work debate continues to grow ever contentious. In this year’s study, we asked participants whether they were working in person, hybrid, or fully remote. Additionally, we asked if they were doing so by choice or were mandated by their employer.

When comparing key outcomes across work situations, no consistent themes emerged. However, hybrid workers who had the freedom to decide where they work reported a shorter duration of mental health symptoms, a more positive impact of work on mental health, greater comfort talking about mental health at work, lower likelihood of leaving roles for mental health reasons, and greater pride and intent to stay at their current employer for two or more years.

There is not — and never will be — a single, universal way of working that is unequivocally “better” or “worse” than the other. (Remember open offices?) The benefits will always vary depending on the company, function, industry, region, culture, stage in an employee’s life cycle, individual team members’ needs and preferences, and more. Yet the focus on work location detracts from the many other dimensions of working, like when we work or how we communicate. More importantly, it overshadows an even more fundamental question: the individual’s ability to choose what works for them.

What Employers Can Do

Since our founding in 2017, Mind Share Partners has worked with global organizations across industries, sizes, and regions. As we’ve continued to grow our training, strategic advising, and implementation work within employers alongside our broader movement building and advocacy initiatives, we offer five key strategies for organizations based on this year’s findings:

Collectively re-envision a mentally healthy workplace.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all vision of what a mentally healthy workplace looks like. Achieving this requires a collective re-envisioning of what workplace mental health means to everyone in the organization — leaders and workers alike — tailored to its size, stage, industry, region, individual roles, and more. This starts with understanding your organization, what mental health looks like within it, and ultimately, what your people want. This means measuring mental health and workplace factors, asking about workers’ perspectives on a regular basis, and enacting real, meaningful change tailored to the needs of your people. Further embedding these efforts into your organization’s culture, systems, employee life cycle, and business strategy ensures that well-being is built into the business itself, not simply relegated to an HR wellness program.

Enable culture change from top down and bottom up.

This year’s study showed that workers want safer and more supportive cultures for mental health and healthier and more sustainable work cultures in general. Inevitably, this kind of culture change requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

From the top, leaders can tell their own mental health story within their organization or turn outward and share publicly like in Mind Share Partners’ Leaders Go First campaign. This normalizes mental health and helps others feel comfortable talking about it at work if they want to. They can also model healthy work practices and, specifically as leaders, resource teams and individuals to maintain healthy and sustainable ways of working.

From the bottom-up, employers and individual workers alike can explore forums for conversation, such as employee resource groups, peer listening programs, a cross-functional mental health working group, or mental health champion networks. These conversations can be about mental health, but they can also take place within teams to establish work norms, explore inclusive flexibility, and empower individuals to decide how they work best.

One natural step forward is to equip your people to lead this change. This typically happens through training across levels, taking a proactive, preventive approach with a management and equity lens that goes beyond simply “noticing the warning signs.” Workers and leaders alike need the strategies to create psychological safety and sustainable work cultures. Upskilling your people can also include manager programs, leadership coaching, mentorship, and more.

Explore root-cause solutions alongside wellness perks.

When managing any strategy or budget, it’s easy to fall into the trap of investing in “quick fix” programs and products without critically evaluating their purpose. For instance, mental health days allege benefits of rest and rejuvenation and are often accompanied by optimistic awareness slogans like “It’s OK not to be OK!” This can accomplish commendable intentions: giving rest, raising awareness, and sparking a broader dialogue. But what comes after? Well, in many cases, it’s back to the same churn and burn(out). Even worse, it enables employers to continue “not okay” (i.e., unsustainable) business practices under the guise of personal resilience.

Leaders need to offer ways to cope and solve for root causes. There’s an ever-growing number of players in the space — health care providers, wellness programs, meditation apps — each with its own philosophy, approach, product, and business objective. All have their unique benefits often steeped in scientific literature, but when workers are asking for a healthy and sustainable culture of work, these approaches may not solve the right problem.

Recommit to the foundations of work itself.

While every organization is different, there are still core foundations every workplace must meaningfully address in order to cultivate a mentally healthy workforce:

  • Safety: This includes physical and psychological safety, financial stability, as well as balance and sustainability in the long term.
  • Autonomy: This includes the time, bandwidth, and resources to do one’s job; control, flexibility, and predictability over one’s work; and having a voice.
  • Belonging: This includes the ability to show up authentically to work, make meaningful connections and be supported, and feel a holistic sense of community with others.

These are core human needs that, unfortunately, tend to be overlooked as employers pursue wellness perks without addressing the fundamentals. For a deeper dive, explore the U.S. Surgeon General’s recently launched framework on workplace mental health and well-being, which Mind Share Partners collaborated on.

Stay the course on DEI.

Employers’ place in solving the inequities of the world has been heavily debated, to say the least. But let’s look even more simply at what’s well within the realm of their control: the workplace. Organizations not only have the ethical responsibility to avoid perpetuating inequity but also the opportunity to help employees flourish from human diversity, camaraderie, and shared purpose. This year’s data shows that when social identities are supported, workers have better mental health and engagement outcomes.

Mental health and DEI are intrinsically tied. Historically marginalized groups face added cultural and structural barriers both at work and when seeking mental health support. Mental health is also a category within DEI given the prevailing stigma and marginalization of those navigating mental health challenges or living with conditions.

Ultimately, DEI is about making the work work for everyone. Of course, like any visionary goal, this requires people power, budget, strategic planning, and cross-functional investment. Unfortunately, some employers have shied away from DEI amid the rollback of affirmative action. Others remain steadfast and committed, in part as a business imperative. Our message? Stay the course.

. . .

What would typically take decades for a social movement, the workplace mental health movement achieved in a matter of years.

As we look to the future, the workplace mental health movement will ultimately need to go “back to basics.” Workers no longer want frivolous perks to distract them from work. They want stable employment to mitigate financial anxiety, recognition to know they matter, sustainable workloads to prevent burnout, a supportive community to find belonging, the flexibility to decide how work works for them, and the autonomy and voice to feel respect, agency, and ownership over their work and their lives.

The future of mental health at work won’t be an emerging technological renaissance or a transformation of hybrid work. The future will be a recommitment to core human needs. It will be safety, community, and a healthy organizational culture. It will be sustainable work rooted in equity and workers’ voices. The future of workplace mental health will start with exactly that: work itself.

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