do workers want this help, and is it really possible to help people keep well?
Not so many years ago, say 6 or 7, working in a big US investment company the ethos was “we don’t talk about our feelings at work”. According to one such employee, who would like to remain anonymous, “It’s money, so it’s all about numbers, numbers, numbers. There was no place for a compassionate work culture. That’s what I felt like I worked in for years.” There were of course benefits that came with the job like catered meals, access to a gym and even downtime to play at a Sloto online casino but “it was never like, ‘oh, we have to actually care for people in their lives.”
But according to this same employee, changes started to occur about 2 years ago. “The company started hosting workshops and classes on how to take care of yourself, improve your sleep hygiene, that kind of thing. They were creating a forum to talk about mental health.”
New efforts to help employees manage their emotional health
There is a growing expectation that companies take more responsibility for the emotional well-being of their employees. And since the pandemic, there has been even more of a shift towards mental health benefits as the challenges faced during Covid-19 have shown the importance of these benefits in the workplace.
Kelly Greenwood, CEO of Mind Share Partners, a workplace training company in San Francisco, says “I think because of the pandemic, and the dire need to support people through its challenges, that has accelerated.”
Basically, this support should have been instigated a long time ago. However, it is not a simple benefit that equals improved mental health situation. The reality on the ground is more complicated and these programs initiated by companies to address mental health and the well-being of employees may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The new benefits being offered
Many companies, across a whole range of industries began in recent years to offer benefit packages to their employees which included wellness and mental health care resources. But since the onset of the pandemic there has been a substantial increase in the benefits that are being offered.
An Employee Wellness Industry Trends report put out by Wellable, who design wellness programs for the corporate world says that “88% of companies in the US are investing more in mental health.” These include things like stress management and resilience and resources like mindfulness and meditation programs. The report states that “These programs have been growing in popularity in recent years, and the unique challenges created by COVID-19 have only accelerated the demand. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income, and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Encouragingly, employers are taking notice.”
Our anonymous employee, says “the pandemic forced this urgency, like, we’re literally going to lose people quickly if we don’t do something. We’ve seen more policy changes this year than in the last six years that I’ve worked here. They’ve added a ton of benefits. They’ve added childcare benefits, increased leave policies.”
However, just because these companies are seeing the need for these benefits and providing them, doesn’t mean that employees will make use of them.
In many places of work there is the lingering ethos of the separation between the personal and the professional. Many people are not willing to share their mental health issues with their work colleagues. Barbara Harvey at the UK’s Accenture Research – for inclusion and diversity research – says “People are still afraid they won’t get the job or get promoted if they talk about it.” Workers are uncomfortable using some of these resources that are under the auspices of management and that by sharing their personal issues these are being monitored by their bosses.
According to one person employed at a start-up “Leadership thinks what people want is to have the forum to break down or talk, but that’s backward. People don’t want to really open up to their colleagues, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t do it at a company workshop.”
It seems that these resources are not offering quite the right kind of help that is needed.
The need for adjustment
Nevertheless, Barbara Harvey acknowledges that these programs are a positive step forward. But she feels that they don’t quite go far enough in addressing the root causes of these mental health issues. She feels that they are offering solutions to help people already in distress. She says “If you’re not doing that alongside creating a supportive work environment, then you’re not resolving the problem, you’re just putting a plaster on it. The two have to go hand-in-hand.”
The answer is to instigate policies such as flexible working hours and working to create better relationships between teams, employees and their managers. These mindfulness programs should be combined with regular assessments on workloads and the resources workers have to finish them to ensure they are compatible to the lowering of stress and anxiety.
A study recently carried out by Barbara Harvey and her team reported 6 factors that stood out in making a supportive environment in the workplace. These covered things from work-life balance right through to how comfortable a worker feels to opening up about any mental health issues to colleagues and managers. Harvey says, “In supportive organizations, the incidence of mental health issues dropped by 40% and workers there felt almost twice as likely to be able to cope with the everyday stresses of work”.
This extras support may indeed lead to workers being more willing to take advantage of other wellness resources offered by the company. The report found that in those organizations that were more supportive workers were more likely to be open to asking for help and assistance.
However, the real issue may be that real changes need to be made in building work cultures that will promote good mental health. This would involve structural change.
According to Harvey “In the most supportive workplaces, individuals were four times more likely to say, ‘work is good for my mental health’. So much of what work offers is good for our mental state. It gives us a sense of purpose, camaraderie, connection, a feeling we’re achieving something. If you can manage stress, and you’re given the resources you need, you get these places that are actually really good for you.”
So, fewer working hours, with enough salary to cover childcare and food bills. The appropriate level of resources needed to complete a job and a place where a worker feels safe to talk about any difficulties that may arise.