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Mental Health Awareness Month: How the Workplace Impacts Mental Health

One in three U.S. workers say their job has had a negative impact on their mental health over the past six months, according to SHRM.
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mental health awareness month: how the workplace impacts mental health

One in three U.S. employees say their job has had a negative impact on their mental health over the past six months, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). With May marking Mental Health Awareness Month, SHRM's study highlights how less-than-ideal workplace conditions can have serious impacts on employees.

In general, the U.S. workforce has experienced challenges that have contributed to lower mental health and higher stress and burnout since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Forty-four percent of employees around the world reported experiencing stress during “a lot" of the day in 2022, according to a Gallup study, up from the previous record of 43% in 2020.

Alarmingly, 76% of the U.S. workforce reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition, an increase of 17 percentage points in just two years, according to The U.S. Surgeon General's 2022 “Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being."

Recent economic challenges have also had concerning impacts. In “MetLife's 21st Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study 2023," MetLife's holistic health index showed that holistic health—mental, financial, social and physical—has declined significantly in 2023 compared to 2022. Plummeting financial health, a major factor in the decrease, is closely correlated to lower mental health with 48% of employees citing financial concerns as the cause of lower mental health, up from 31% in 2022.

Unfortunately, work can contribute to employees' challenges. Among work-related contributors to negative mental health, respondents cited workload issues as the No. 1 problem at 51%, according to SHRM. Other factors included inadequate pay or compensation (46%), understaffing (29%), poor leadership or management (28%) and a lack of opportunities for career advancement (26%).

It's not all bad: 31% of workers say their job has had a positive impact on their mental health over the past six months, with baby boomers and traditionalists more likely to report the positive impact, SHRM found. However, younger employees report a heavier impact from work on poor mental health, with 27% of Generation Z workers saying their job made them feel depressed at least once a week in the past six months.

Amid these challenges, workers are increasingly expecting their employers to provide mental health benefits. However, they are falling short. Forty-five percent of employees have higher expectations for the level of mental health support their organization should provide compared to last year, but 59% say their organization offers too few mental health resources. 

When workers don't have access to these benefits, they're more likely to leave. Forty-nine percent of employees who say their job has a negative impact on their mental health are more likely to be actively searching for a job, compared to those who say their job had no impact (23%) or a positive impact (14%). And 41% of employees say they're likely to leave their current job if they were offered a new job with significantly better mental health benefits. 

SHRM's study also uncovers key areas in which employers can offer better mental health support to their employees. Fifty-eight percent of workers said paid mental health days above and beyond regular sick leave would best support their mental health, and 35% said that mental health coverage included as part of employee health care plans would best support their mental health. Another 35% said that the best support would be free or subsidized virtual mental health services.

More mental health accommodations would also be helpful, with 48% of respondents identifying paid or unpaid time off for mental health, 44% saying flexible scheduling, and 32% asking for work breaks.

“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," said Ragan Decker, Ph.D., SHRM lead researcher.

To provide guidance and strategies for improving mental health awareness in the workplace, Alera Group released a new toolkit this month. The toolkit highlights workplace availability of time-off policies, employee assistance programs, training for both leadership and employees to build a mentally healthy workplace, and more. 

“Employees are struggling with mental health issues more than ever before and they're looking to employers for support," said Sally Prather, executive vice president and employee benefits practice leader at Alera Group. “To fill this critical gap, employers who have always cared for their employees in this area are getting more intentional about how to best support them in the wake of COVID-19, remote work and other factors newly impacting employee wellbeing. They are looking for new solutions that meet employees where they are."

AnneMarie McPherson Spears is IA news editor. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023
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