Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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Of the many issues we have faced throughout the past two years, perhaps the most surprising but important is mental health. Studies now show that nearly 81% of workers face some form of burnout or mental health issue, and 68% of employees say their daily work has been interrupted by these challenges.1
Health care is one of many industries, along with retail, transportation, and hospitality, that has been especially affected by burnout and stress as a physically and mentally depleted workforce has faced peaks in demand for services.
Large health care providers like Provident and HCA, among others, have told us that their employees are “undergoing trauma, just like our patients.” This, in turn, is leading to sickness, absenteeism, and staff turnover. There’s a domino effect on remaining teams, too, as these employees are overstretched and unsettled and face high levels of stress in order to meet patient needs with fewer people.
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From our regular discussions with HR leaders around the world, it’s clear that the organizations outperforming their peers are those that have cultivated a strong sense of empathy and flexibility, developed new skills to address workforce needs, and extended holistic mental health support to employees.
Like many of the changes that have come out of the pandemic, this new approach to mental health looks set to be a permanent one. As they begin to see the value in the link between mental health and the well-being and overall performance of a business, leading companies are going the extra mile to understand and respond to the way employees feel day to day.
The CEO of Starbucks has stated publicly that he considers the mental and emotional health of the company’s workers to be its biggest challenge coming out of the pandemic.2 Morgan Stanley, which employs many people who have advanced degrees and are exceptionally high performers, now has a chief medical officer dedicated to maintaining and improving mental health across the organization.
Within human resources departments, we’re seeing a growing trend of companies promoting new roles focused on measuring and improving mental health at work.
Our research (a study of over 1,000 companies) examined which business and people practices have the most impact on business outcomes, people outcomes, and innovation. This analysis points to the importance of transitioning from the traditional focus on employee benefits to one that encompasses job and work design, management, rewards practices, a demonstrated commitment to psychological safety and fairness, and a culture of employee listening.
This research shows that “healthy” organizations outperform their peers in a range of ways. Rates of absenteeism are almost 11 times more likely to be lower, and these employers are more than three times more likely to retain people. Companies that care about staff well-being are at least twice as likely to delight customers, to be identified as a “great place to work,” and to exceed financial targets. These companies also adapt more readily to change and are more effective at innovating.3
From HR Issue to Management Priority
We’ve found that within organizations, the higher up that mental health is prioritized, the bigger the impact of any interventions. Until recently, mental health was seen as a benefits problem, relegated to the realm of HR. Companies offered employee assistance programs, for instance, or insurance-provided advice networks to help staffers find a counselor. These programs, while widely available, were rarely used in practice, due to employees’ worries about the stigma of asking for help. Plus, benefits managers were continuously concerned about the programs’ cost.
Now, this equation has changed completely. Mental health is scaling the management agenda, and money is being made available to invest in identifying and addressing issues with positive, proactive, and increasingly creative solutions.
Pioneering companies are creating programs for sabbaticals, time off, child care benefits, and far more flexible work arrangements. Tools like real-time pay systems, regular feedback sessions, the four-day workweek, and far more discussions with leadership are all efforts to make work more humane and healthier for workers. Simple policies like allowing dogs in the office can cost so little yet matter so much to employees.
In many cases, technology platforms and targeted apps are providing some of the answers — from meditation apps geared toward mindfulness to tools that improve the employee experience by helping to alleviate administrative strain. But for maximum and lasting impact on mental health, change needs to happen within the context of culture, where conversations about mental health are encouraged and normalized.
Any good, proactive mental health initiative starts with listening. Most companies, and most business leaders, won’t know how much stress there is in the organization unless employees tell them. Sentiment surveys, open town hall meetings, and exit interviews are all crucial inputs for gathering facts and bringing attention to the issues employees are facing.
The real shift here is that many companies are now removing the stigma attached to talking about matters of mental health. People can say, “I’m not feeling well today,” or “I’m tired,” or “I’m having troubles at home”; that type of feedback is critical.
Monitoring in this way will help senior managers pinpoint any particular hot spots in the business for further investigation.
Innovation in Action
During the pandemic, the leadership team at global telecommunications provider Verizon created a series of biweekly conference calls to help senior managers empathize with the high levels of turnover, stress, and employee burnout in its field force and share ideas on how to address these urgent issues.
JPMorgan Chase implemented a well-being application for all of its employees that asks staff members and leaders to check in regularly to tell the system how they feel that day. HR monitors these signals and data inputs to see whether certain groups are experiencing major changes in stress, enabling HR team members to connect managers and challenged teams with support.
Royal Bank of Canada requested that all managers take a course in mental health, developed by the public mental health council of Canada. This course helps leaders develop skills for recognizing various forms of stress or other illnesses, using the language of mental health.
Airline reservation and technology company Sabre surveyed employees regularly to understand their stress and productivity challenges in the move to remote work. Using this input, the company shifted to a new management model, creating a set of focused tools for managers to diagnose, improve, and continuously monitor employee stress and productivity.
Toward the Genuinely Healthy Organization
Creating a robust and consistent process for monitoring employee well-being allows employers to spot issues before they escalate and to provide timely help. Encouragingly, of the 1,000-plus companies we studied, about 15% now think about overall employee well-being as an integrated part of their strategy.
This has implications for leaders’ skill sets and personal attributes, too, which over time will have a bearing on who is promoted into senior roles. I believe very strongly in human-centered leadership — the idea of putting your people first and prioritizing their health. Managers or team leaders have to keep in mind that people’s sense of safety and security is the most important thing. Once that’s in place, you can talk about everything else. But if that isn’t there, everything else you’re working toward will suffer.
Now more than ever, it’s time to think about the employee experience more holistically. It isn’t just my own work that’s highlighting this. Study after study shows that mental health is the top-rated benefit requested by workers. In response, leaders, managers, and employees at all levels must advocate for a proactive approach to mental health. It’s both the right thing to do and a solid business strategy.
1. “Employer Support Has a Direct Impact on the Health and Resilience of Employees, According to a Mercer Survey,” Mercer, Sept. 13, 2021, www.mercer.com; “American Worker in Crisis: Understanding Employee Mental Health in Unprecedented Times,” PDF file (Burlingame, California: Lyra Health, July 2020), https://get.lyrahealth.com; and “Edelman Trust Barometer 2022,” PDF file (Chicago: Edelman, January 2022), www.edelman.com.
2. A.R. Sorkin, “Howard Schultz: Starbucks Is Battling for the ‘Hearts and Minds’ of Workers,” The New York Times, June 11, 2022, www.nytimes.com.
3. J. Bersin, “The Healthy Organization: Next Big Thing in Employee Wellbeing,” Josh Bersin (blog), Oct. 27, 2021, https://joshbersin.com.