Mental health in the workplace has become recognized as an important issue in recent years, with COVID-19 lockdowns bringing it directly into the spotlight. While working from home is ideal for many, for some –  the new reality was strenuous.

There were many for whom the sense of isolation was quite stark, exacerbating existing anxieties. And, for those trying to balance working from home with other responsibilities, like online e-schooling, it was monumentally overwhelming. A home office (or a dining room table office) meant that the lines dividing work and home became blurred… leading a lot to burnout.

New Day, Same Problem

Tackling mental health in the workplace is not a new issue: businesses have provided access to EAPs, Employee Assistance Programs, since the 1930s. However, this approach clearly wasn’t answering employee needs, as most employees wait up to 10 years to seek help for depression-related symptoms. Add to that the changing face of the modern workplace, and it quickly becomes apparent that a major, cultural overhaul is needed in terms of tackling mental health at work.

“Wellness” is all well and good, but a ping-pong table isn’t enough

Over the past decade, companies began to realize that taking care of their workforce is an essential part of business management, and the popularity of wellness programs, offering holistic care to employees, has steadily grown. This is a great start, and it will make a difference to those who use the programs, however, when it comes to mental health, even these programs are falling short. The problem continues to grow: 41.6% of people reported that their mental health has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Workplace mental health expert Jen Anderson declares “mental health in the workplace is culture change, not a benefits program.” 

Microbrew-fueled happy hours and Taco Tuesdays are only producing the facade of addressing the issue of workplace stress; in fact, these culturally mandated after-hours activities encourage overworking instead of addressing the mental health problem head-on.

Leading the Workplace Mental Health Revolution

A revolution is indeed taking place. Small businesses and even large corporations are taking the issue of mental health seriously, and are finding innovative ways to be part of the solution. 

1. Taking responsibility at the management level

SAP offers a training program for management aimed at changing attitudes toward mental health, focusing on when and how to communicate compassion and understanding. Led by research indicating that leaders play a critical role in improving their employees’ well being by decreasing emotional exhaustion, SAP trains management how to focus on the “meaningfulness of work”. They’ve also committed to giving every employee worldwide an extra day off for mental health.

2.  Building a culture of community

During the height of COVID-19, imposed social isolation meant that striving to maintain a work-based community culture was essential. 

BlackRock, the global investment management firm, used its pre-established employee network groups to reinforce its collaborative culture across the firm throughout the lockdowns. They springboarded on their established programs and expanded into a virtual buddy program, panel discussions about balancing work with added caregiver duties, and market roundtables.

During and after the peak of COVID-19, many companies also conducted pulse surveys – quick, simple questionnaires for employees to give the management an overall picture of the company’s “health.”  

BlackRock conducted pulse surveys during the pandemic, and as a result, developed new programs like remote management skill-building for managers, enhanced health and well-being support for employees, and increased work flexibility and time off.

Understanding their employees’ needs first enabled the leadership to best support them and to foster a culture of community.

3. Organizing ERGs

Employee Resource Groups are voluntary, employee-led platforms that focus on shared identities and experiences. As opposed to the traditional EAPs, they are organized from the bottom up, so employees have a say and a stake in determining which resources would actually benefit them, and how to implement changes. Johnson & Johnson employees have spoken about how the ERGs have changed their lives as the level of inclusion and tolerance has improved.

4. Offering Blue Dot Support

Another “bottom-up” approach is Google’s Blue Dot program. Employees are offered a light training course to become informal supporters so that those struggling can access support comfortably, locally, and confidentially. The “Informal Supporters” sport indicative stickers on their laptops, and the eponymous blue dot on their nametags, lets others know they’re available. The Blue Dot disintegrates some of the intimidation of reaching out for support, since “ask me about Blue Dot” is much easier to respond to than “Ask me about mental health”. The program normalizes mental health in the workplace, removing stigma, and since its inception, Blue Dot has gathered nearly 2,000 allies in its network.

5. Supporting a healthy work-life balance

Telling your employees it’s okay to shut down their smartphones after 6 pm is not the same as making it impossible to send internal work-related emails after 6 pm. Volkswagen shut down its email servers after work hours to many of its German employees as early as 2012 and only reactivated the servers 30 mins before the start of the new work day.  Some may say this is going to the extreme, but is it?

By practically imposing this restriction, Volkswagen leaders sent a clear message to their employees—we understand you have a life outside of work. Take it. Enjoy it. 

But clearly, this black and white approach would not work for every company or for every individual. 

However, the idea of giving employees a break from the mental and emotional tug of email alerts and work pressure during their off-hours did not go unnoticed. For example, in 2017, France introduced regulations that set tighter boundaries around when a remote worker’s obligations begin and end. In early 2021, Ireland introduced a code of conduct on the right of all workers to disconnect.

What’s in it for SMEs?

While enterprise companies have introduced a variety of initiatives to tackle mental health in the workplace, SMEs have been slower to adapt and make changes, even though they are the most common places to work globally.  In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 99.8% of all enterprises in European Union countries were SMEs, with 99% in the United States and 99% in Japan.

From a financial perspective, mental health issues in the workplace can lead to reduced productivity, which spells bottom-line loss. It behooves any company – even a smaller venture – to implement strategies preventing employee stress and burn-out. 

Even within a limited budget, SMEs can provide perks like:

  • Flexible/hybrid work options
  • Small scale employee outings
  • Half-day Fridays
  • Reasonable deadlines
  • Imposing communication restrictions outside of working hours

Transforming work culture

While counselling services and a listening ear will benefit anyone struggling in the workplace, only a real and active shift from the top will change the work culture in an organization. By listening to employees and looking at the big picture as the world changes, leaders can create new standards, offer more options to their employees, and build a company culture that energizes and motivates employees rather than one which drains them of their motivation and mental health.