These tips for fostering mental health in the workplace can benefit both employees and employers.
Jason1 always considered himself to be a rock-solid, emotionally stable person. So he was shocked when one morning at 3 a.m. he bolted upright in bed, his heart racing. His company was one week into the COVID-19 pandemic and as an IT manager, he was responsible for helping more than 300 employees shift from working in the office to working at home.
“I hardly slept for three months,” he recalls. “By the time things settled down, I was a wreck. I came this close to being hospitalized. Maybe I should have been. It took months, and some professional help, before I finally got back to my normal self.”
If you lead or manage an organization, you’re likely nodding your head because you recognize yourself in Jason. Or maybe you’re feeling concerned because you have seen your employees’ desperation when anxiety about job insecurity sets in, or when workers feel so isolated working from home that they fall into depression, or when working parents are stressed beyond their limits by simultaneously managing remote work and children’s online schooling.
Managers who fully grasp these kinds of details are, unfortunately, a minority. Most managers are unaware of just how much their workers’ emotional health is impacted by events beyond their control, such as a pandemic, an uptick in natural disasters, or incidents of racial injustice.
Research released by Mind Share Partners in late 2021 reported that only 47 percent of US workers think their company leaders advocate for improving mental health at work. The study also found that 84 percent of respondents reported one or more workplace factors that negatively impacted their mental health in the past year. On the other hand, workers who said they felt supported by their employers amid the pandemic were more than twice as likely to feel satisfied with their jobs and were twice as likely to say they intend to stay with their organization for two or more years.2
The pandemic itself has brought attention to work-related mental health concerns. Tim Gubler, a BYU Marriott assistant professor of strategy, says the pandemic is an ordeal, but it’s also “a natural experiment that’s providing opportunities for us to learn.” He, along with many management experts, believes companies should look carefully at what has happened so far during the pandemic, both inside and outside their organizations, so they can tease out best practices. What’s working can be supported and expanded, he observes. What’s not working can be minimized or dropped.
As of early 2022, experts are clear that leaders of organizations, from self-employed freelancers to giant conglomerates, should prioritize assessing and boosting their mental health strategies. As the Harvard Business Review published in late 2021, mental health support has gone from “nice-to-have to a true business imperative.”3
Some might argue that it’s an employee’s responsibility to take charge of their own mental health, including work-related burnout. But research shows that employers, not employees, have the greater power to impact workplace well-being. Gallup CEO Jim Clifton says that his company’s research clearly indicates the reason more than one half of US workers are unhappy with their jobs: “It’s the manager,” he said in a 2019 interview. “Period.”4
Since the pandemic started, many companies have stepped up their mental health support. But many have not. Interviews with BYU Marriott professors and seasoned alumni show the way for those who want to begin or boost their efforts to support workplace emotional health.
Mental Health in Context
For years before COVID hit, a global mental health crisis had already been brewing. In the United States, depression and suicide rates began climbing about two decades ago. But humans have had some understanding of mental health for much longer.
Our ancestors recognized painful emotions, even without our modern knowledge about mental health. More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates taught that an imbalance in bodily fluids caused emotional instability. Even further back, ancient Chinese texts described conditions we would today label as “stress.” In the Book of Mormon, Nephi pointed to classic symptoms of depression when he wrote about his heart weeping, his soul lingering in the valley of sorrow, and his flesh wasting away (see 2 Nephi 4:26).
Stability is a basic human desire. Our brains are hardwired for knowing. Without the anchor of knowing at least some things, we feel at sea, leaving us with a diminished ability to focus on tasks at hand. When health and livelihood are threatened, thriving often falls by the wayside in favor of simply surviving.
Science has given us richer language to describe mental health conditions and much greater resources to deal with them. Basic knowledge about depression, anxiety, and suicide is readily available, and mental health is becoming a more common topic of conversation and focus in the workplace.
Fostering Good Mental Health in Your Workforce
Self-care is the mantra of the moment for managers and workers, and several BYU Marriott grads are embracing it with zeal.
BYU Marriott alum Taber Rigg, who earned his MBA in 2007, oversees 2,500 employees scattered throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico for food giant Cargill’s starches and sweeteners division.
“Our people are just exhausted from everything going on, and burnout is high. We absolutely have been focusing on mental health,” says Rigg. “Burnout is a shared responsibility between employees and the organization. Ultimately, we as leaders have the responsibility to lead, model self-care, and help employees with their self-care, which includes finding them the resources they need.”
Starting even before the COVID pandemic, Cargill launched several mental health campaigns for its employees. In one program, top execs meet with employees to share stories about their own mental health struggles and their routines to combat burnout. The goal is to work mental health “into our everyday rhythms and routines of conversations,” says Rigg. “When leaders are vulnerable and share their stories, they give permission for everyone to speak up and say, ‘Yes! I feel the same way. Here’s what’s been impacting me, and here’s what would help me.’”
Most recently Cargill rolled out a Well-Being Manifesto tool that helps teams create a document to steer them toward daily attention to well-being. Each team comes up with its own ideas, such as deciding it’s okay to take full lunch breaks, decline a meeting, or ask for more flexibility around childcare needs.
Recognizing limitations and being able to set boundaries is crucial, says BYU Marriott alum Ashley Emig, who graduated with a BS in management in 2010. Emig, senior director of sales and licensing at Retail Monster, acknowledges that when she gets late-night emails it’s “super tempting” to jump online and answer right away. “But that quickly leads to burnout,” she says. “I’ve learned to set my limits, focus on my family, and pick up the emails the next day.” And she encourages those on her team to do the same.
Erik Lamb, who graduated with an MISM in 2016 and is executive vice president of product for Drips, recognized workaholic behavior in one of his employees. He told her he wanted to see that she was offline when she should be. She responded, “I don’t know if I can do that.” Lamb worked with her, and after a few months, she was able to work less without panicking. She’s now spending more time with her ill mother, a commitment that had been a spoken priority in her life but now is a lived priority.
At Drips, Lamb says he’s seeing more burnout since employees started working from home. “When you work from home, you’ve got work tools on your phone, on your desktop, on your laptop, and all these streaming conversations,” he says. “You have to be much more conscious of boundaries.”
Invest in Relationships
Lamb, who supervises 30 workers, acknowledges that senior leadership in his company did not take well-being seriously enough for a while. A few months ago, they realized that the old ways of in-office work were not up to snuff for remote work. Since then, they’ve created a buddy system, launched budgeted employee clubs, and encouraged more casual conversation during meetings.
“Our buddy system is very simple,” says Lamb. “We pair you with someone who is not in leadership but has been here a while, and they can help you learn the unspoken rules and cope with remote work.” The program has been “incredibly well received,” he says. “Just being able to talk to someone informally has dramatically improved the way our employees perceive our work environment.”
Drips also funds employee clubs about common interests, such as pets, investing, and cooking. For the cooking club, employees get a package once a month with ingredients and a recipe. They cook on their own and then get together on a video call to recount their adventures. “There’s a lot of failure and a lot of laughter. It’s a way for people to connect with no expectation of performance,” says Lamb.
He encourages his team to be selective about meetings to relieve virtual meeting fatigue and to promote better performance. They should decline about 30 percent of the meetings they are asked to attend, he tells them. “If you don’t do that, you’re not allowing for the uninterrupted time you need for deep work. You can’t enhance your craft or think deeply about problems if you’re constantly in meetings.”
Lamb has also noticed that injecting “unfiltered conversation” into meetings has helped his team feel less stressed. “I used to go straight to the agenda,” he explains. “I’ve relented and encouraged everyone to just joke around for a few minutes. ‘How are you doing? How about your dog? How many cats do we have on keyboards?’”
Ensure Physical Safety
Before considering how to support their employees psychologically, managers must make sure that employees feel physically safe. BYU Marriott alum Barbara Leavitt, who graduated with an MPA in 2008 and is currently the community impact director for United Way of Utah County, says her agency has made their employees’ physical safety a priority. At the beginning of the pandemic the agency acted quickly to get their employees working remotely so they could stop worrying about COVID contagion. “We’ve established that their safety is paramount,” Leavitt says. “They know we have their backs.”
As COVID pressures built, Leavitt integrated physical and emotional well-being into her weekly check-in with the four United Way directors she supervises. “I ask them, ‘Do you feel safe? Connected? Confident?’ I also provide an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes.” Flexibility is one of United Way’s greatest ways of supporting mental health. “Employees can come to us and propose changes, and we’re responsive,” Leavitt says.
Gratitude from an employer is also essential to worker well-being. Taeya Howell, a BYU Marriott assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources, has researched how public gratitude affects employees. In a study focused on essential workers such as nurses and firefighters, she found that when leaders openly express gratitude, “workers are more likely to see stress as a challenge they can overcome. Gratitude helps employees feel seen, which in turn improves employee well-being.”
Building Your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Skills
Minority groups can be at an even greater risk for mental health struggles. No matter how many—or how few—people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, or women you have among your ranks, you can be sure most of them are experiencing an extra layer of stress.
Emig feels the added pressure keenly. “We all wear figurative masks, but as a woman of color, I’m forced to wear more masks to stay safe,” she explains. “The more masks we have to wear, the more energy we expend keeping the masks on. That leaves less energy to be as successful as we could be.”
In workplaces where minority individuals are few, pressures to represent one’s group can be particularly crushing. Emig has her share of experience with this dynamic, which she finds, paradoxically, both draining and motivating at the same time. “If I’m in a meeting, am I just speaking for me now or am I speaking for my whole culture? Am I speaking as the one woman in the room? As the one Black woman in the room? It’s stressful, but it also helps you build skills,” she explains.
Over the years, Emig has heard many reassuring words about racial harmony from coworkers and managers, but she’s learned to watch for actions that reaffirm those words. She’s committed to speaking up when conversations and actions don’t match. “I’m like so many people of color—when we first started in our careers, we just put our heads down and did our work,” she remembers. “But now, you might need to be that one dissenting voice that no one has heard before. We’re not going to be quiet about feeling ‘othered’ in the workplace.”
In 2020, the American Psychological Association’s president, Sandra L. Shullman, said the United States was in the middle of a “racism pandemic” that was “taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens.”5 About the same time, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Laura Morgan Roberts and Ella F. Washington titled “US Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism.”
Roberts and Washington discuss research that indicates employees can be helped or hurt by how their organizations respond to race issues in the media. An organization can either help workers feel psychologically safe or contribute to the feelings of mistrust. “Without adequate support, minority employees are likely to perceive their environments as more interpersonally and institutionally biased against them. Leaders seeking to create an inclusive environment for everyone must find ways to address these topics,” say the authors.
They then caution managers, especially managers in the racial majority, against staying silent about racial injustice, becoming overly defensive, or overgeneralizing about groups when conflicts are in the news. “Think about how you can allow your employees to discuss what’s happening without putting them on the spot or asking them to speak for everyone in their identity group,” say Roberts and Washington.6
Emig suggests that nonminority managers develop their empathetic ears and hearts. If they don’t understand what minority employees are experiencing but want to, a simple “Tell me more about that”—and then listening intently—goes a long way. Managers, she says, can tell their workers, “I’m probably not going to say the right things, but I’m interested in learning and growing and making a space for you. How can I do that?”
What Results Can You Expect?
There are a variety of benefits that you, your company, and your employees can expect from paying more attention to mental health in the workplace. As you and your company become more psychologically savvy, you can expect your workers to be less anxious. And because anxiety hijacks the brain, less anxiety means smarter and more productive employees. Less anxiety also means happier employees. Happy employees are less likely to find another job, thereby reducing turnover and its costs. They are healthier and miss less work, also resulting in higher productivity. All these factors add up to higher profits.
In his study, Gubler cites statistics that show the costs of corporate wellness programs are dwarfed by reductions in insurance and absenteeism costs. If workers aren’t pressured to work when they are ill (“presenteeism”), US firms will save more than a combined $150 billion per year—almost three times what absenteeism costs, he says.
All in all, organizations that consider their workers’ emotional health will reduce the costs of turnover, absenteeism, and presenteeism. Those companies that commit to a more emotionally fit workplace will find their workers happier, healthier, more engaged, and more productive.
Tips for Leaders
Here are additional tips from the experts.
- Model the self-care principles you want your workers to practice, which means being specific—and public—about what you yourself do.
- Keep an eye out for employees whose needs don’t fit majority patterns. If your workforce is remote, be aware that some people’s situations may make it harder for them to work from home.
- Cultivate listening and empathy. Both skills take work to develop; put in the work.
- Remind your employees often of features in your company’s health plan that cover mental health.
- When you see an employee’s performance dipping, consider whether the cause might be an underlying mental health issue.
- If you’ve made mistakes that have hurt your employees during the pandemic (or anytime), create a plan to rebuild their trust.
- Don’t look for an easy fix, because it doesn’t exist. Try lots of things and see what works.
Written by M. Sue Bergin
Illustrations by Jon Krause
About the Author
Sue Bergin is a writer, editor, and artist who lives in Orem, Utah. She taught at BYU Marriott as an adjunct faculty member and wrote the Family Focus section of Y Magazine for 17 years. Her current passion is editing and ghostwriting memoirs.
- Jason is a composite of several people, drawn from interviews by the author and from personal accounts shared online.
- Mind Share Partners, “2021 Mental Health at Work Report,” mindsharepartners.org/mentalhealthatworkreport-2021.
- Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2021, hbr.org/2021/10/its-a-new-era-for-mental-health-at-work.
- Jim Clifton, “It’s the Manager,” The Chairman’s Blog, Gallup, May 7, 2019, gallup.com/workplace/251642/manager.aspx.
- Sandra L. Shullman, “‘We Are Living in a Racism Pandemic,’ Says APA President,” American Psychological Association, May 29, 2020, apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/05/racism-pandemic.
- Laura Morgan Roberts and Ella F. Washington, “US Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism,” Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2020, hbr.org/2020/06/u-s-businesses-must-take-meaningful-action-against-racism.