Mental health support at work

There are many words that came to define the world-altering year 2020: Doomscrolling, social distancing, contact tracing. But as we wrap up 2021 and round the corner toward year three of the pandemic, many are pointing to “burnout” as the defining word of this year. As record numbers of people quit their jobs this year, burnout is one of the key reasons.

It’s not surprising. The pandemic spawned anxiety, loneliness, and heartbreak that millions of people are still processing. And on top of that, many people’s jobs started demanding more of them. Essential workers—especially those in healthcare—are still putting in grueling hours under atrocious conditions. Even those of us lucky enough to have the option to work remotely have seen our hours increase, as work bleeds into every facet of our personal lives and the fatigue of staring at a screen all day wears on all of us.

In fact, a recent survey, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of people reported feeling anxious or depressed compared to 11% in 2019 pre-pandemic.What’s more, by some estimates, half of Americans will experience an issue or significant symptoms of mental illness over their lifetime.

While some form of health insurance has become a common benefit for many salaried positions, most plans have paltry (if any) mental health coverage, and mental health has long been considered a taboo topic in many workplaces.

But now, more than ever, addressing mental health in the workplace has become a business imperative. Supporting employee mental wellness is good for company culture and for productivity; by some estimates, for every $1 invested in supporting mental health in the workplace, there is a $4 payback.

To help understand what mental health support should look like at work, I talked to psychologist Jessica Jackson. Jackson is also the Global Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Care Lead at Modern Health, a mental health care vendor for workplaces.

On this episode of The New Way We Work,  she outlines some of the reasons why mental health has finally entered the mainstream conversation. As people are feeling the prolonged stress and fatigue of the ongoing pandemic, they have become more comfortable admitting when they aren’t okay. Jackson says she is hearing people say, “I can no longer continue to say I’m okay when I’m not feeling okay. That helps to normalize the conversation, she says. “As soon as you say it, you free other people to say it. And that helps to create a culture where people are talking about it more.”

Jackson also points to the generational shift happening in many workplaces. “Gen Z, they’ve been talking about mental health [in high school and college],” says Jackson. “It was very normalized.”

Jackson says that its crucial to offer mental health benefits, not only because younger employees have come to expect it, but also because it’s an important retention tool. “[Younger employees] going to be looking for those benefits. If you want to be able to recruit in a way that feels competitive, you need to offer people what they’re looking for. They’re no longer even looking at it as a perk. This is a standard benefit.”

However, she advises, it’s not enough to just offer the benefit; you have to demonstrate how it can be used. “We talk about mental well-being offerings when people are in distress or in crisis, [but we need to] normalize that mental well-being is a spectrum,” says Jackson.

Listen to the episode for more on how mental health support at work is directly tied to work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; how to reduce the stigma around mental health; and more on the business benefits of prioritizing well-being at work.