A number of U.S. employees say their job is hurting their mental health—and they are increasingly looking to their employer to make matters better. If conditions don’t improve, they might leave for other opportunities, according to new research by SHRM.
One in three U.S. employees say their job has had a negative impact on their mental health over the past six months, with 30 percent saying their job has made them feel overwhelmed and 29 percent saying it’s made them feel anxious at least once a week, according to new data by SHRM Research released on May 1 to mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Month. The survey of 1,000 workers, which was administered March 15-28, 2023, also found that 27 percent of Generation Z workers say their job has made them feel depressed at least once a week in the past six months. That’s not only putting them at risk for other health issues, but it’s also causing many of them to look for a new job.
The research also highlights the important role employers play in helping to turn things around.
Importantly, SHRM Research finds that nearly half of U.S. employees (45 percent) have higher expectations for the level of mental health support their organizations should provide, compared to last year.
“This finding suggests that employees are looking to their organizations to take an active role in supporting their mental health,” said SHRM lead researcher Ragan Decker, Ph.D., SHRM-CP. “This reflects a growing awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace and the need for employers to address it. Employers will need to recognize and adapt to these changing expectations.”
Causes and Effects
SHRM’s findings align with other studies highlighting significant mental health challenges in the U.S. Overall, mental health has taken a big hit since the onset of COVID-19, with rates of depression, anxiety, stress and burnout rising to new levels. That’s only been exacerbated by ongoing inflation, which has impacted employees’ financial health.
Research released by insurance company MetLife in March found a significant decline in overall holistic health—incorporating physical, financial, mental and social health—with financial and mental health in particular showing sharp declines. Meanwhile, health care firm Telus Health, which compiles a monthly mental health index to gauge how employees are feeling, found in April that inflation and financial pressures have put more than 65 percent of U.S. workers at high or moderate risk of mental health issues.
The SHRM Research survey found that not only are employees generally having a hard time, but work often contributes to stress and other mental health issues. Decker said there are multiple contributing factors, including workload (cited by 51 percent of survey respondents), pay/compensation (46 percent), understaffing (29 percent), poor leadership or management (28 percent), and lack of opportunities for career advancement (26 percent).
“Organizations can turn around the negative impact of work on employees’ mental health by prioritizing workload management, fair pay and compensation, addressing understaffing, developing strong leadership and management, and providing opportunities for career advancement, as well as implementing mental health support programs and fostering a positive culture,” she said.
On the flip side, work also can have positive impacts on employees’ mental health. In the SHRM Research survey, nearly 1 in 3 U.S. workers (31 percent) say their job has had a positive impact on their mental health over the past six months, with older generations—Baby Boomers and Traditionalists—more likely to be positively affected.
“Employers and leaders need to understand that work can function as both a risk factor and a protective factor for mental health,” Decker explained. “On the one hand, work can be important for fulfillment and happiness because it provides a sense of purpose and meaning, social connections and personal satisfaction. On the other hand, high job demands, long hours, a lack of control over one’s environment and poor work/life balance can lead to work-related stress, anxiety and other issues.”
How Employers Can Help
Employer help is crucial to solving the mental health crisis, experts said. While many employers have promoted employee assistance programs (EAPs) or added mental health apps and other resources in recent years, research showing virtually no improvements in employee mental health indicates much more needs to be done.
Among U.S. workers who work for an organization, 59 percent say their organization offers too few mental health resources, the SHRM data shows. And employees who work for organizations that are not successful at creating a workplace that supports mental health are less likely to describe their mental health as good or excellent (46 percent), compared to those who work for organizations that are successful at creating a workplace that supports mental health (74 percent).
So what are employees looking for? Among U.S. workers who work for an organization, 58 percent said paid mental health days (above and beyond regular sick leave) would best support their mental health, followed by 35 percent who say mental health coverage as part of employee health care plans would best support their mental health, and 35 percent who say free or subsidized virtual mental health services would best support their mental health.
SHRM Research found that employees are also interested in:
- Classes such as mindfulness or yoga (26 percent).
- EAPs (23 percent).
- Mental health apps (21 percent).
- Mental health support groups (16 percent).
- Mandatory mental health training for managers (16 percent).
- Mandatory mental health training for employees (16 percent).
- Workshops on mental health (15 percent).
- Educational resources on mental health (13 percent).
Employees also desire more mental health accommodations, including paid or unpaid time off (48 percent of employees say this accommodation would best support their mental health); flexible scheduling, such as part-time hours, job sharing or adjustments to starting and ending work times (44 percent); and work breaks (32 percent).
Employer support is crucial not only for employees, but for organizations as well, the research indicates. Employees with mental health issues are less likely to be productive and healthy, and they also stand to pose a big problem for organizations: They are also more likely to leave their employer in search of other organizations that better support their mental health and prioritize support.
U.S. employees who say their job has had a negative impact on their mental health over the past six months are more likely to be actively searching for a job (49 percent), compared to ones who say their job has had no impact (23 percent) or a positive impact (14 percent), SHRM Research finds. And just over 4 in 10 U.S. employees (41 percent) say it’s likely or very likely that they would leave their current job if offered a new job with significantly better mental health benefits. That sentiment is more prevalent among younger employees: 61 percent of Generation Z employees and 48 percent of Millennial employees say they are likely or very likely to leave their current job if offered a new job with significantly better mental health benefits.
These figures, Decker said, highlight both the “potential impact that poor mental health support can have on employee retention” and “the importance of employers providing adequate mental health support to attract and retain talent.”
“Our results also suggest that younger generations are more likely to prioritize mental health benefits when considering job opportunities, so it will become increasingly important for organizations to adapt their policies, practices and offerings to meet the changing needs and expectations of U.S. workers,” she said.
The bottom line? “There are significant risks for employers if they do not do more to support their employees’ mental health,” Decker said.