Whether working for a business, nonprofit, or government—employees are becoming more mindful about the connections between work and well-being.
More than a decade ago, I experienced severe anxiety while working for an organization that didn’t have the healthiest of cultures. The situation ultimately spiraled into a debilitating depression, which forced me to take a leave of absence from my job, which shattered my sense of self. Ambitious high achievers couldn't have depression, right?
That, of course, is a myth. Earlier this year, U.S. Senator John Fetterman from Pennsylvania went public with his clinical depression. The way he managed—and messaged—it should serve as a model for public figures. The same goes for Diane Patrick, the former first lady of Massachusetts and high-powered attorney who in 2007 was hospitalized for depression. Her husband, Governor Deval Patrick, cut back on his work to be with his wife.
Given the persistent stigma around mental health, these were brave acts by high-profile employers. But momentum is building for leaders not to sweep anything under the rug. C-suite executives at Pinterest, the Minnesota Vikings, Google, Siemens Energy, and more have come forward to share their own mental health struggles. Companies, nonprofits, and government entities are making mental health part of their internal programming to grapple with increasingly complex workplaces.
As we know, workplace mental health came into sharper focus during the pandemic and the racial justice reckoning. A landmark study that my nonprofit organization conducted in 2021 surveyed 1,500 U.S. adults in full-time jobs, with statistically significant representation across race, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ+ status, generation, levels of seniority, and more. We found that mental health challenges are pervasive among employees no matter how you slice the data. More than 75% of respondents reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition.
In the same report, an overwhelming 84% said that at least one workplace factor negatively affected their mental health—not too surprising since work is where we spend much of our time and is often a main source of our stress. Younger workers in the Gen Z and Millennial cohorts, as well as Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ employees, were affected even more severely. These workers pointed to emotionally draining work—meaning stressful, overwhelming, or boring. Notably, Black and Hispanic respondents were more likely to leave roles for mental health reasons. Women, as we know, also face additional barriers at work because of gender stereotypes and the lingering male-dominant architecture of the workplace—realities that serve only to exacerbate anxiety.
And for some, workaholism—a way to cover up issues we may be trying to avoid—is par for the course of having a high-octane job. As Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks wrote in The Atlantic, “[W]hen it comes to work, people reward you for addictive behavior. No one says, ‘Wow, an entire bottle of gin in one night? You are an outstanding drinker.’ But work 16 hours a day and you’ll probably get a promotion.”
In recent years, however, many employees at all levels are becoming more mindful of the interplay between work and well-being. Mental health isn’t just an individual’s responsibility anymore. It’s also becoming the collective responsibility of employers to normalize mental health challenges and promote a mentally healthy culture, including mitigating the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health for everyone. In addition, health is not an “us” versus “them” issue—we’re all in this together. We all experience some sort of mental health challenge during our lives—be it stress, grief, burnout, anxiety, depression, or another diagnosable condition.
“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, with whom we worked on the federal government’s workplace mental health priorities. “As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being. … It will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their growth. It will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.”
The broad issue of mental health is one of the rare issues that virtually all Americans can agree is important. In a 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN survey, 9 out of 10 people said they believed that there’s a “mental health crisis” in the U.S. About half said they knew of someone in their family with a severe mental health crisis. In terms of who is responsible for addressing the situation, a sizable chunk (44%) of people named employers, after family and doctors.
How do we fix this?
At Mind Share Partners, we are changing the culture of workplace mental health so that both employees and organizations can thrive. As a national nonprofit, we provide custom workplace training, strategic advising, and implementation services, which serves as a research and development vehicle for our advocacy work. Our ultimate goal is twofold: to normalize mental health challenges at work and to create mentally healthy workplace cultures. Based on years of client work with industry leaders such as BlackRock, Morrison Foerster, and Pinterest, along with three in-depth public opinion research studies in partnership with Qualtrics, we’ve learned the essentials for employers and leaders looking to tackle mental health at work. In a nutshell, the answer is culture change.
Americans are the most stressed-out workers on the planet. Reasons include the workload, lack of autonomy, toxicity, systemic racism, and the ongoing remote/in-office debate. Tackling some or all of these features requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Senior leadership, not just H.R., must treat mental health as an organizational priority, with accountability mechanisms such as regular employee surveys, clear ownership over a mental health strategy, and employee protection policies.
Culture change can be a big, amorphous term that’s easily thrown around. To us, it means a commitment with specific action steps, including:
- Getting to the root of the problem. Although mental health apps and benefits can certainly be effective, they are not sufficient by themselves. Even companies with the best benefits won’t see an uptick in usage unless a stigma-free culture exists. And benefits are simply a Band-Aid unless a sustainable, mentally healthy work culture is in place.
- Upskilling everyone by incorporating workplace mental health training into onboarding and ongoing professional development as well as implementing mental health employee resource groups (ERGs), peer listening, and mental health champion programs. (We have almost 500 organizations represented in our free community for leaders of mental health ERGs.)
- Collaborating with employees around working needs, styles, and preferences. It’s not a one-size-fits-all.
- Demonstrating your organization’s dedication to mental health through the employee life cycle, including creating a well-being statement that clearly defines what this means.
- Measuring the mental health of your employees and relevant workplace factors.
Among the biggest barriers to mental health support is stigma. The way to reduce shame—to make something less foreign or scary to people—is to normalize it and talk about it.
When nonprofit, government, and business leaders share their personal mental health stories, it normalizes experiences like anxiety and depression, burnout, bipolar disorder, and more. This vulnerability cracks open what can sometimes be closed and antiquated workplace culture. It also, crucially, makes their workers more comfortable doing the same—talking openly about their own struggles—should they choose to do so. Earlier this year, 10 C-suite executives participated in our now-ongoing “Leaders Go First” storytelling campaign. It was heartening to see a growing number of senior leaders stepping up to break the traditional—and damaging—silence around mental health challenges as well as modeling mentally healthy behaviors.
Burnout has received an increasing amount of attention in the past few years. It continues to afflict women more than men. Pinterest’s chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, Nichole Barnes Marshall, has relayed the story that she was once so burned out, she sat in her car and cried before work. Versions of this story aren’t uncommon. Women also experience increased rates of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD, in part because of systemic causes centered in gender inequities: the pay gap, underrepresentation at work, caregiving responsibilities, and gender-based violence. When it comes to men, mental health is one of the rare instances in which they face added challenges in our culture. Social norms often prevent men from talking about mental health and from seeking treatment.
What can employers do to mitigate these factors? They can take a proactive, preventive approach with a management and equity lens to workplace mental health. There’s no need to dive into signs and symptoms—employers aren’t therapists, nor should they be. But mental health training should provide baseline knowledge and dispel myths, as well as offer tools and strategies to navigate workplace mental health and foster mentally healthy cultures.
Looking to the future
This fall, we released Mind Share Partners’ 2023 Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics, which includes pre- and post-pandemic trends. It also provides employers a roadmap for moving forward in this new era of work. Three trends stood out to us.
Invest in culture change, not just shiny tech objects. To reiterate, employers have historically rallied around a productized, individualized approach to mental health care—therapy, apps, time off. These Band-Aids serve only to equip workers with the resources to self-manage their mental health on their own time. In our new study, 78% of workers said a healthy and sustainable culture would be moderately, very, or extremely helpful in improving their mental health.
Stay the course on DEI. According to our study respondents, employers’ efforts at diversity, equity, and inclusion are paying off. It would be a poor business decision—and a mentally unhealthy one—to scale back or mute DEI programs, despite the current political climate that is attacking such programs. Mental health is a newer category within DEI as well as intersectional with our multifaceted identities and demographic groups.
Back to the basics. Although every organization is different, there are core foundations that every workplace must meaningfully address in order to cultivate a mentally healthy workforce. These include psychological safety, financial stability, autonomy/flexibility, and belonging. The ability to show up authentically, make meaningful connections, and feel a holistic sense of community with others is what we want all employees to experience.
As organizations prepare for the future of work—including recruitment, retention, DEI, and artificial intelligence—they should actively begin a culture shift. As with other innovations, AI will not be a substitute for culture change. A new technology is a tool, not a panacea. Unlike older generations, Millennials and Gen Z workers expect true investment and sustainability in workplace mental health. They are wise beyond their years on this one.
Workplace mental health came into sharper focus during the pandemic and the racial justice reckoning, and more employers are beginning to normalize mental health challenges and promote a mentally healthy culture—including mitigating workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health.
Kelly Greenwood, who has worked in the corporate and foundation sectors, is the founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a national nonprofit organization working with employers to improve workplace mental health.
Illustrations by Gaby Bonilla/The Pew Charitable Trusts