Mental Health Maintenance In The Workplace

by Hannah Zwemer ❘  

The Push For Mental Health Days

As we continue to trudge through the COVID-19 pandemic, for just over 2 years now, more and more workers, especially younger ones, are re-evaluating what it is they want out of their employment, particularly when it comes to benefits. What they want, in large part (82% of employed Generation Z workers) are mental health days built into their compensation packages.

The Impact Of COVID-19 On Employee Burnout

Considering the global shutdown and otherwise completely altered way of living since 2020, it’s no surprise that across-the-board, mental health has been less than stellar. Employees are dealing with burnout, fatigue, and other stressors that prohibit them from getting their best work done. TalentLMS and BambooHR recently polled the youngest working generation, colloquially referred to as Gen Z (which includes anyone born between 1997-2012) and asked them about their ideal working conditions. A generation sculpted by technology and the vast interconnectedness of the internet, they are also reporting some of the highest levels of mental duress according to the American Psychological Association (APA). In a 2018 press release, the APA found that 91% of individuals between 18-21 reported experiencing at least 1 physical or emotional symptom related to stress. However, they are also the generation most likely to seek some sort of treatment or assistance for their mental health; 37% followed closely by Millennials at 35%.

The push for more inclusive mental health care is not just coming from Gen Z. Online job seeking platform, Monster, found that nearly 1 in 3 people believe that their work poorly impacts their mental health and overall wellness. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety (2 of the most common mental illnesses) cost the United States roughly $1 trillion dollars in lost productivity every year and if organizations took intentional steps to rectify and maintain mental wellness, overall output and morale might increase. For example, for every $1 that is invested in quality mental health care, the return on investment/general health and productivity is $4 dollars.

Mental Health And Substance Abuse In The Workplace

Many people who struggle with mental health may also struggle with substance abuse issues. Studies show that roughly 1 in 4 adults struggles with both. Substance abuse and mental disorders can occur simultaneously for several reasons, including self-medication to ease the symptoms of certain health conditions or, on a larger scale, the state of the world or workplace stress. However, if untreated, both substance use disorders (SUD) and mental conditions can worsen and deeply affect all aspects of life, including employment. If you or someone you love is struggling, take the first step by reaching out to a treatment provider today.

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New Work Culture Warrants New Policies

During the height of the pandemic, amidst closings and quarantines, many companies prioritized the mental health and wellness of their employees by offering mandatory vacation days, flexible or hybrid schedules, and access to apps that promote wellbeing. However, with the worst part of the pandemic seemingly in the past, the emphasis on overall health as a priority has slowly diminished, leaving some workers feeling burned out.

In a survey conducted by Mind Share Partners, it was revealed that 84% of workers (across several demographics) reported workplace-induced mental distress in 2021. The largest contributing factors leading to this steep 84% were emotionally draining work itself, challenges with work/life balance, and a lack of recognition from executives. Historically, United States workers are among the most stressed in the world, certainly exacerbated over the last few years. According to Gallup’s Global Workplace report, 57% of Americans (a makeup of 62% women and 52% men) reported feeling daily stress compared to 43% of the rest of the world. Fortunately, however, there are practices Monster suggests companies could consider implementing to remedy the widespread feelings of burnout and mental unwellness:

1. Invitation To Be Open About Mental Health

Thanks to younger generations and the slow beginnings of a shift in perception surrounding the legitimacy of mental health, it is more common than before to be open in discussing concerns relating to one’s inner wellbeing. One survey reported 65% of employees had discussed their mental health at work in the past year, but in order for this trend to continue, employers need to be cognizant of the ways in which they approach and handle mental wellness as well as provide adequate solutions to address the concerns brought to their attention. If organizations continue to encourage their employees to be honest and transparent with their individual needs, and employees know there is no threat of termination or other negative impacts, mental health and the normalization of its prioritization might eventually become common practice.

2. Monitor The Wellbeing Of Employees Through Regular Check Ins

Though much of the world is operating in a nearly normal capacity, many are still suffering from burnout and other lasting effects from the past few years. By scheduling time to speak with workers about not only their workloads and the feasibility, but also about their overall health and state of mind, employers have the opportunity to create a network of support in which their employees feel truly cared for. This practice could be beneficial in encouraging employees who are hesitant to take time off for their mental wellbeing, too. If higher ups reassure the importance of self-maintenance, those who are unsure of the implications of said time off understand there is no penalty or shame associated with that preservation.

3. Implement Company-Wide Days Off

Many employees fear taking time off for the pile of emails, deadlines, meetings, and any other important information they might have missed while they were away. To combat this, Monster suggests companies schedule time throughout the year where everyone is off at the same time. That way, all employees, from CEO to entry-level, are sure they won’t miss anything.

Mental Health Days In Practice: LinkedIn’s “LiftUp!” Initiative

In the early days of the pandemic, LinkedIn reached out to its employees and asked them how they were feeling. After employees responded with strong feelings of burnout, overwhelm, overall discontent, and other negative experiences, the company launched the LiftUp! program. This new implementation contained a series of policies that fostered a culture of care and concern among all employees. Arguably the most notable of the new policies was titled “RestUp!,” an initiative that included a company-wide, week long closure in April 2021 alongside allocated “Well-Being Days” and Friday half-days throughout July and August.

In an interview with CNN, Chief people advisor for the company, Teuila Hanson emphasized how leaders in the organization approached the current and bizarre work culture:

We looked at our survey results…the executive team put our heads together to figure out how could we systematically address these themes we are seeing with our employees. [LiftUp!] was really intended to figure out, what can we specifically do from a program perspective—benefits, perks to address burnout, work family balance, people feeling alone and isolated—how could we bring some surprise and delight, how can we bring some levity to our employees?

- Teuila Hanson, CNN, 2021

Executives noticed that these programs were incredibly beneficial for the overall morale of the company culture. Vice President of benefits and a lead in initiating the LiftUp! policies, Nina McQueen said, “It has been absolutely incredible to see employees talking about what their experience is and how they feel cared for. We see the sentiment and participation, and we’re measuring things up.”

Other Companies Like Bumble & Hootsuite Have Followed Suit

While LinkedIn may have been the first company to attempt a complete organization-wide shut down, they are hardly the only one. Roughly 2 months after LinkedIn, founder and CEO of Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Heard gifted her company’s 700 employees one full week away with paid vacation; a bonus to the allotted vacation time granted each year. The goal, as with LinkedIn was clear cut: to give workers paid time to themselves without the guilt and burdensome worry that they might return to an even bigger pile of “to dos.”

Research shows that the average person has around 8 social media accounts on various platforms and spends nearly 2.5 hours on social media alone (not including the hours of additional time spent online). In response, Hootsuite decided to stagger a portion of their workforce so the business remained open, while mandating a week off for all other employees. Company founder, Ryan Holmes believes strongly in the “interval training” model in which periods of hard, focused work are offset by time to rest, reset, and recover. Listed as “inaugural” and most likely based on other companies’ collective success, this event provides an interesting thought experiment for those continuing to navigate the work/life balance amidst the ever-evolving societal landscape.

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Mental Health Is Physical Health

Despite the clear and encouraging strides we have made in the realm of mental health over the last decade or so, there is still a long way to go in legitimizing the very real nature of all that goes on inside our minds. Where physical health is often blatant and usually understood, mental health remains largely in the dark theoretical space of presumption and misunderstanding.

Just as you would care for a broken bone or a contagious cold, be sure to care for your mind, too. If you have began or increased the use of drugs or alcohol in an attempt to remedy mental health struggles, take a moment to evaluate the motives behind substance use. While substance abuse may provide a temporary relief, they typically worsen mental health struggles in the long-run. Reach out to a treatment provider to confidentially ask any question you might have and they will help guide you forward.

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Hannah Zwemer

Photo of Hannah Zwemer
  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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