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Fostering Mentally Healthy Workplace Cultures: Safety, Community, and Organizational Support

Updated: Dec 1, 2023



The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted mental health in workplaces across the United States. With heightened stress, anxiety, isolation, and burnout, employees have struggled with declining mental wellbeing over the past few years. However, despite these challenges, new research reveals some bright spots regarding mental health at work. Employees today demonstrate greater awareness and openness about mental health. They increasingly expect and demand more robust mental health support from their employers. What do workers need to thrive mentally on the job today? As a new study by Salvatore et al. explores, employees primarily want what research has always shown works best: mentally healthy workplace cultures centered around psychological safety, community, and organizational support.


Today we will explore Salvatore et al.’s research, which provides powerful insights into how mental health at work has evolved before, during, and after the pandemic. We will look at the study's key findings regarding employees' perspectives and experiences with mental health, stigma, and work over this tumultuous period. Most importantly, the study details the specific strategies leaders and organizations can implement to foster more sustainable, mentally healthy cultures. This includes promoting: psychological safety and trust; a sense of community and belonging; mental health awareness and education; comprehensive benefits and services; and an organizational commitment to mental wellbeing across policies, programs, and practices.


The Pandemic's Impact on Mental Health at Work


The COVID-19 pandemic dealt an unprecedented blow to mental health across all domains of life, including the workplace. By spring of 2022, rates of depression and anxiety worldwide had increased by 25%, while stress-related disorders surged. This mental health crisis has profoundly impacted employees. Even prior to COVID-19, mental health conditions were the leading cause of disability and lost productivity at work. However, the radical upheaval of the pandemic accelerated concerning trends.


Salvatore et al.’s research examined how the seismic changes of the pandemic affected mental health from the perspective of employees themselves. They conducted a survey of over 1,500 U.S. workers both before COVID-19 and two years into the pandemic. Their findings reveal a complex picture of both progress and persistent struggles when it comes to mental health at work today.


On the one hand, the pandemic appears to have made mental health a more prominent and accepted topic of discussion in the workplace. The percentage of employees who said no one at their company ever discussed mental health fell from 51% pre-pandemic to just 28% in 2022. Additionally, stigma seems to be slowly decreasing, with more workers saying they feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with managers and colleagues.


However, despite this increased awareness and openness, employees' actual mental wellbeing has not improved. Rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and burnout all increased substantially during the pandemic and remain elevated today. Employees report higher stress, more challenges concentrating, and reduced ability to manage emotions. Critically, they feel their workplaces have not done enough to address these mounting mental health burdens. 50% say their company culture does not support mental health, while just 22% feel their employers provide sufficient mental health services and benefits.


This mismatch between employees desiring more support and workplaces failing to deliver reveals the need for organizations to move beyond superficial solutions. While initiatives like offering meditation apps or appointing a “Chief Feelings Officer” may generate press, they do little to foster sustainable cultural change. Employees today want meaningful strategies grounded in psychological safety, trust, community, and humane organizational values. The following sections detail specific, research-backed approaches leaders can implement to promote genuine, long-term mental health improvement across their organizations.


Fostering Psychologically Safe Cultures


The foundation of any mentally healthy workplace is psychological safety. Employees need to feel able to express vulnerability, ask questions, and take risks without fear of embarrassment, retaliation, or punishment. Psychological safety establishes a bedrock of trust, enabling authentic communication about mental health without stigma.


Leaders play a pivotal role in cultivating psychologically safe cultures from the top-down. They must model openness and vulnerability by sharing their own mental health experiences and struggles. Leaders should also proactively invite perspectives from employees across levels of seniority and privilege. Structurally, they can implement employee assistance programs that guarantee anonymity and remove barriers to accessing mental health support. Psychologically safe workplaces also have clear, consistently enforced anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies.


Additionally, teams and colleagues create psychological safety through mutual empathy, compassion, and non-judgment. Simple practices like active listening, validating others' emotions, and extending grace all help colleagues feel comfortable discussing mental health. Ultimately, psychological safety enables the honest, judgment-free conversations that allow mental health struggles to be addressed early before escalating into crises.


Building Inclusive Community


Alongside psychological safety, employees strongly desire a sense of community, belonging, and mattering at work. Humans are inherently social; we thrive when we feel connected to those around us. During COVID-19's isolation, many workers lacked these essential social bonds and experienced intensified mental health strains.


Rebuilding community requires thoughtful intention across company culture, policies, and practices. Leaders should foster personal connections and trust by hosting small-group lunches, coffee meetups, and low-pressure social events. Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives help ensure all employees feel welcomed and valued for their unique identities and experiences.


During times of distress, coworkers become critical sources of social support. Leaders can empower employees to support colleagues’ mental health through mental health ally/advocacy training. This teaches employees how to sensitively yet directly discuss mental health, provide non-judgmental listening, and connect coworkers with resources.


Structurally, buddy systems, mentorship programs, and employee resource groups give employees forums to build community and discuss mental health. Flexible work policies enable employees to maintain crucial social connections outside of work. By proactively strengthening interpersonal bonds and support, organizations cultivate a culture where employees feel less alone in their mental health journeys.


Educating to Reduce Stigma


While stigma around mental health is decreasing, it remains a significant barrier to employees seeking support. Over a third of workers still feel discussing a mental health issue with a manager would be inappropriate. Stigma often stems from lack of awareness and understanding. Thus, continual mental health education can help normalize these issues and empower employees to take action.


Workplaces should provide regular training on mental health literacy, stigma reduction, and suicide prevention. Programs can be integrated into onboarding, leadership development, DEI initiatives, and health/wellness benefits education. Beyond one-off sessions, ongoing learning opportunities through lunch-and-learns, newsletters, and intranet portals reinforce an organizational commitment to mental health.


Training helps employees recognize signs of distress in themselves and others. It teaches them how to compassionately yet directly discuss concerns, while instilling that mental illness should receive the same care and urgency as physical illness. Education also equips managers to identify troubling changes in employees and sensitively broach conversations. When workplaces promote compassionate understanding of mental health, stigma fades.


Access to Comprehensive Mental Health Benefits


Of course, education alone is insufficient without accessible treatment resources. Employees today expect robust mental health benefits that meet their diverse needs. Quality employee assistance programs providing free, confidential mental health counselling are foundational. Workplaces can also partner with digital platforms offering virtual therapy, self-help tools, and convenient access to psychiatric care.


Crucially, mental health benefits should integrate seamlessly with medical coverage. Full parity between physical and mental healthcare reduces cost barriers. Other supportive financial investments include training mental health first aiders and peer counselors. Generous mental sick day allowances enable employees to prioritize recovery.


Benefits only succeed if employees know about and can easily use them. Thus, workplaces must promote offerings through multi-channel outreach while minimizing logistical hurdles. Protecting employees’ medical privacy remains paramount. When workplaces make comprehensive, integrated mental healthcare readily available, employees gain essential support.


Embedding Mental Wellbeing in Organizational Values and Systems


Ultimately, standalone policies fail unless undergirded by a culture that values human welfare. Fostering mental health requires embedding wellbeing into an organization's deepest values and structures.


This begins with leaders unequivocally declaring mental health a top priority across strategy, vision, and operations. Dedicated mental health professionals in HR and a Chief Wellness Officer seat mental health concerns firmly in the C-suite. Mental health metrics become integrated into business dashboards, goals, and success indicators.


Work processes and performance management emphasize sustainability, work-life balance, and compassion. Meetings, emails, and Slack adopt norms that do not demand 24/7 availability. Workloads and schedules allow for self-care and renewal. Coaching and development conversations incorporate mental health check-ins.


Mentally healthy cultures also guarantee all employees basic dignity, respect, and mattering. Living wages, paid leave, mental healthcare, and childcare show workers they are valued as full human beings. Anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies are strictly enforced, with clear, safe reporting processes. When organizations center human welfare across all operations, employees gain the support they need to thrive mentally.


Conclusion


The study on the future of mental health at work highlights the need for safety, community, and a healthy organizational culture. While the findings show that mental health isn't improving overall in the U.S., there are encouraging signs of greater awareness and a shift in focus towards mentally healthier cultures. Employees are looking beyond traditional benefits and technologies, recognizing that what they truly need is a supportive and nurturing work environment. To foster sustainable mental health cultures, leaders must prioritize the well-being of their employees and implement strategies such as promoting open communication, providing resources and support, and creating a culture that values mental health. By prioritizing these aspects, organizations can create a positive and inclusive workplace where employees feel safe, supported, and empowered to thrive both personally and professionally.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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