By Joseph Romsey

Citing long hours and excessive workloads, more than one-third of U.S. workers (34 percent) say their mental health is declining, according to a recent survey from The Conference Board. The survey of over 1,100 workers also uncovered a strong correlation between worsening mental health and decreased employee engagement, with nearly 70 percent of respondents who reported decreased mental health also reporting lower engagement.

Increased Pressure on Employees and Employers

Employees and organizations have both been under growing economic and cultural pressure in the past year, as employees have also increased their expectations for better work/life balance.

“Workers have been asking for more autonomy, flexibility and ownership over their experience of work,” said Bernard Wong, senior manager of insights and principal at Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit group focusing on workplace mental health. “But many employers have been doubling down on efforts to downsize people-related costs, maximize productivity, and even avoid contentious social and political issues. The constant push and pull has negatively impacted workplace mental health.”

Meanwhile, businesses are feeling financial pressure from higher interest rates. “So managers are getting squeezed and asked to do more with less, which gets passed on to employees,” said Sue Howard, president of consultancy HR BluePrints. “To make matters worse, many people have lost some of their social skills during the pandemic, making already difficult mental health conversations even tougher.”

The Roots of Burnout: Broken Workplace Cultures

The Conference Board report found the reasons behind worsening mental health included long hours and heavy workloads, two things Wong said “are largely driven by the employer side.”
“As valuable as health care benefits and self-care perks may be, they only equip employees to cope with fundamentally broken cultures of work, rather than addressing the root causes” of poor mental health, he said.

The close correlation between worsening mental health and reduced engagement is no surprise to Howard. “When an employee is having a mental health issue, it takes them much more energy and time to do their work, making them even more susceptible to burnout,” she said. “If an employee could instead take a break, organizations would actually see greater productivity and less burnout.”

Stigma Stops Conversations

The survey also found that 38 percent of workers didn’t feel comfortable talking to their manager about their mental health, a drastic increase from 18 percent a year ago. What’s stopping these important conversations that could result in people getting help?

“There’s still a lot of stigma around workplace mental health,” said Abbie Rosenberg, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mental Health Collaborative, which provides training programs on workplace mental health. “One misunderstanding managers and employees sometimes share is that mental health challenges are character weaknesses or are somehow different from physical illnesses, which they’re not.”

In addition, some of the increased worker discomfort about talking to managers “may be a byproduct of an increasingly contentious relationship between workers and employers,” Wong said. “When workers feel insecure, unsure or ambiguous, and when the message of support [from managers and organizations] isn’t clear, workers are going to err on the side of safety and not say anything.”

Tips for Improving Workplace Mental Health

What can organizations do to help address worsening workplace mental health? More scheduling flexibility and work/life balance were cited in the survey as the top “wants” of workers. More than half (55 percent) of respondents said that being able to take a guilt-free, paid-time-off day would be helpful for their mental health.

What additional actions would the experts recommend?

  • “Have company leaders share their personal connection to mental health issues,” Wong said. “Doing so models vulnerability and allows others to share, catalyzing a culture of safety for workers to do the same, if they so choose.”
  • “Companies should educate all of their managers and workers on how to navigate mental health conversations,” said Amy Freshman, senior director of global HR at ADP, “so that people feel better equipped to reach out for assistance, and so managers and others can guide colleagues to the right [mental health] resources.” Nearly six in 10 employees (57 percent) don’t “feel their managers or colleagues are equipped to talk about mental health issues without judgment,” according to the ADP Research Institute’s most recent People at Work survey.
  • Walk the talk (i.e., make sure deeds align with words). “If your leaders are telling their personal mental health stories while employees are navigating toxic workplace dynamics and managing heavy workloads and even layoffs, people will notice the mismatch,” Wong said. “Anything you say about supporting mental health needs to be translated into actual business practice and the everyday experiences of people.”

Comprehensive Approaches Needed

Benefits, wellness programs and meditation apps are fine, but they don’t address the underlying problem of unhealthy workplace cultures that aggravate mental health concerns. “A comprehensive approach to improving workplace mental health is necessary,” Wong said.

For example, General Dynamics Information Technology, a global enterprise with 30,000 employees, launched its “How Are You, Really?” campaign in 2021 after an employee died by suicide. The campaign raises awareness around mental health and fosters discussions about what supports, in terms of interventions, benefits, flexibility and cultural change, GDIT’s people need from each other and from the company.

“We’ve challenged our traditional approach to work and incorporated more flexibility and choice for employees when work and life become unbalanced,” said GDIT President Amy Gilliland. “This includes reprioritizing workloads, allowing people to take meaningful paid time off to rebalance, and flexing people’s hours. We’ve received an overwhelming response to ‘How Are You, Really?’ Almost every day, an employee tells me about how the campaign has helped them.”

Rosenberg offers a final word about the need for a comprehensive approach to improving workplace mental health. “Organizations need to change how they think about stress, job performance and self-care, rather than reacting to mental health crises [with benefits and wellness apps],” she explained. “Intervening once the building is already on fire is not the best long-term solution.”

Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer in Boston.