How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

Key takeaways

  • Mental health in the workplace refers to the initiatives, benefits, and strategies companies implement to improve their employees’ cognitive and emotional well-being.
  • Promoting mental health raises employee engagement, enhances company culture, decreases the risk of burnout and turnover, and increases productivity.
  • You can improve workplace mental health by surveying and training employees, investing in mental health resources, and updating company policies.

In this article…

The importance of supporting mental health at work

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. It follows that some of your employees may manage a mental illness themselves. Facilitating open communication and providing mental health support in the workplace s is one step toward developing satisfied and loyal employees who feel valued and respected at work.

A proven track record of addressing workplace concerns and supporting workers with mental health disorders is an important factor in establishing employee trust. Employees who trust their employers feel more confident taking risks, collaborating with others, and being themselves. They’re also more likely to be engaged in their work because they know their companies will stand by them.

As a result, you’re likely to see increased employee retention, since engaged employees are more satisfied with their jobs and less likely to seek new opportunities elsewhere.

Nurturing mental health in the workplace is one of the main ways to develop a psychologically safe workplace culture. In a psychologically safe workplace, openness and tolerance are core company values. Employees feel safe voicing concerns, making mistakes, and requesting feedback from peers and managers. This kind of culture promotes adaptability and collaboration among coworkers from diverse backgrounds.

A psychologically safe workplace is also part of maintaining a healthy employee life cycle. Employees who leave with a positive experience are more likely to promote your company, strengthen your brand, attract new employees, and even become future boomerang workers.

Studies indicate that the Gen Z workforce tends to be more in tune with their emotions. According to 2023 data from Monster, 92% of graduates entering the workforce say it’s important for them to feel comfortable discussing mental wellness at work. So, supporting mental health initiatives is critical in this new age of work.

Research by SHRM in 2024 indicates that employees who feel a strong sense of belonging at their company are 2.5 times less likely to feel burned out from their work. The same study also found that employees experiencing burnout are three times more likely to actively seek another job.

Mental health initiatives, such as fair workload distribution and flexible work schedules, can also reduce employee turnover by helping employees better balance work and life. Further, lower turnover means companies retain institutional knowledge and avoid the extra labor costs associated with backfilling a role.

Unsurprisingly, employees in a psychologically safe workplace with access to mental health resources are more likely to be productive. In fact, a 2022 Gallup study revealed that workers with fair or poor mental health are estimated to take 12 days of unplanned leave annually, costing the economy $47.6 billion a year in lost productivity. 

By providing affordable mental health care, maintaining open communication channels, and offering flexible leave, you can make it easier for employees balance work and life. This will lead to fewer unplanned absences as employees feel more motivated in their work.

A note on managing employees’ mental health

It’s not you or your company’s responsibility to “fix” an employee with poor mental health. An employee’s mental health is the result of a complex mix of social, physical, political, emotional, and economic factors that occur both in and outside of work.

While It’s impractical to assume you can “solve” a worker’s mental health concerns, you can develop a workplace that empathizes, supports, and offers resources to employees who are struggling.

How to improve mental health in the workplace

Some of the major steps you can take to improve employee mental health in the workplace include:

1. Secure leadership support

You and your HR department may understand the need to provide mental health resources and cultivate psychologically safe workplaces, but you won’t get far without executive suite support. This support should be more than passive agreement — according to 2024 SHRM study data, 73% of workers reported that their employers profess to care about mental health, but almost half of employers’ actions don’t reflect these statements.

In other words, saying you care about mental health without workplace reform comes off as performative and can even damage your company’s reputation.

Instead, garner buy-in from the top. Share with your C-suite some of the benefits of mental health awareness in the workplace and its impact on retention. And if your higher-ups are concerned with numbers, bring in some of your workforce analytics, including dollars lost from unplanned absences and the productivity boost from overall happier employees.

Once your executives are committed to workplace mental health, have them show it by:

  • Allocating money for mental health resources: A budget for mental health awareness training, expanded benefits, inclusive workspaces, and wellness apps legitimizes support for these initiatives.
  • Encouraging benefit use: Frequent communication from upper management on mental health benefits increases the likelihood of employees using them.
  • Demonstrating transparency: Leaders who are willing to share their personal experiences with some of the mental health resources can help destigmatize their use.

2. Ask your employees what they need

The simplest way to know where to start with mental health in your workplace is to ask. “Surveys are a great place to start, but you have to make sure they are truly anonymous,” says Caitlin Collins, an organizational psychologist and Program Strategy Director at Betterworks. These surveys should also have an open-ended section where employees can add comments.

Collins also emphasizes the importance of regular skip meetings between direct reports and their manager’s supervisors. “Upward feedback and doing that consistently can be very powerful,” she says. These meetings also allow employees to address issues with superiors that they may feel uncomfortable sharing with their direct managers.

Besides anonymous surveys and skip meetings, there are several other ways to learn about the mental health needs of your employees, like:

  • Focus groups: Small and open roundtable discussions led by you or your HR department to gather employee feedback.
  • Confidential one-on-one meetings: Private discussions between employees and their managers or the HR department about pain points and needs.
  • Anonymous comment boxes: Areas where employees can make suggestions or provide feedback on the company’s mental health programs.

Most importantly, follow up with these surveys at least once a year to determine if your mental health support truly serves your workforce as your business evolves.

Many HR software platforms offer ways to facilitate employee surveys and feedback collection. Bob, for example, includes a Your Voice feature that allows employees to suggest changes or express concerns anonymously. Because Bob encrypts employees’ identities, workers are free to speak openly about their workplace mental health pain points and even monitor resolution progress.

Bob displays its Your Voice chat window with a message asking the user to provide details on their concern and a speech bubble with fields for users to select what their case is about, their representative, and their email.
Bob’s Your Voice enables employees to share suggestions and concerns on workplace practices, including mental health needs, without fear of retaliation. Source: HiBob

Not all HR apps have survey options or anonymous suggestion boxes like Bob. Check out some of our favorite surveying and employee engagement platforms if this is your case.

3. Invest in mental health resources and services

Depending on your budget and employee feedback, you should invest in the mental health resources that will impact your workforce the most. At a minimum, ensure your health insurance plans meet the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act standards, meaning mental health services like therapy and substance abuse treatment receive similar coverage as physical health services.

But don’t let this be the only mental health benefit you offer employees. “[You need to have] a variety [of options since] not every employee is going to jump at the chance to see a therapist,” explains Collins. Offering multiple avenues of support — like employee assistance programs (EAPs), online therapy sessions, and remote or hybrid work options — makes it easier for employees to find the treatment options they need.

Another thing to consider is workplace ergonomics. “Not every employee can work under neon lights in an open space room,” explains Collins. Neurodivergent employees, for example, may do their best work in dark or quiet rooms with fewer distractions and interruptions.

Learn more about the corporate wellness software and other employee benefits offerings.

Additional mental health benefits to offer

If your insurance plan already meets federal requirements, review the options below to expand your mental health offerings:

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs): Programs that help employees with financial, legal, personal, and mental challenges, like depression, anxiety, and stress, that may affect their work.
  • Employee resource groups (ERGs): Internal organizations that advocate for organizational change and serve as a safe space for underrepresented groups.
  • Wellness programs: Programs that promote health and well-being through services like gym memberships and mindfulness courses.
  • Enhanced mental health insurance coverage: Plans that offer mental health out-of-network, remote therapy, and comprehensive psychiatric drug coverage.
  • On-site coaching, counseling, or support groups.
  • Stipends for mental health services.
  • Meditation or mindfulness applications.

Some software ticks several boxes. Headspace, for example, provides tools like guided meditations, EAP services, and therapy and psychiatry services in one application that employees can access on their mobile devices.

Headspace's mobile app displays a hub of mental health services including coaching, video therapy and psychiatry, in-person therapy, crisis support over the phone, and work-life balance resources.
Employees can access a diverse mix of mental health services from Headspace’s mobile application, including online or in-person therapy, EAPs, and work-life coaches. Source: Headspace

4. Train employees on workplace mental health

Mental health training is a cornerstone of a psychologically safe workplace. Courses usually focus on:

  • Awareness: Improve employees’ mental health literacy by defining mental illness and removing its stigma.
  • Crisis management: Help managers learn how to manage stressors and support direct reports in emotional distress.
  • Communication: Offer strategies, like active listening and emotional intelligence, to aid in conflict management.
  • Allyship: Create advocates by educating employees on the biases and inequalities facing marginalized groups, like those with mental illness.
  • Intervention: Prepare employees with skills like deep breathing, mindfulness, and physical exercises to recognize and manage mental health symptoms.

Collins recommends making these training resources available for employees on-demand after the training sessions. You may even want recirculate training materials semi-frequently, so employees retain this information for longer.

If you feel out of your depth developing and teaching courses on mental health, check your learning management system to see if they offer free courses or templates. Alternatively, services like Coursera for Business provide ready-made mental health training courses. For example, the Psychological First Aid class by Johns Hopkins University prepares employees to support others in crisis.

Training resources

If you’re new to creating a training course, check out some of our learning and development (L&D) resources below to get started.

5. Examine and update your workplace policies

In addition to your company’s mental health benefits, examine your current policies through a lens of inclusivity and accessibility. Are any of them overly restrictive or use language that excludes employees with mental health disabilities? Your policies should provide enough flexibility to accommodate employees in unique circumstances without setting you up for unfair treatment or discrimination claims.

For example, consider modifying a blanket return-to-work policy. Some employees may find it easier to manage emotional or mental conditions at home, like taking necessary medications or working in an accessible environment. Forcing them to return to in-person work could negatively affect their stress levels and limit their productivity.

Consider other ways you can proactively promote mental health through company policies and procedures:

  • Designate meeting-free work days to support deep work.
  • Prohibit non-emergent work communications after hours.
  • Implement flexible work weeks and paid time off (PTO) policies to encourage work-life balance.
  • Facilitate short group mindfulness breaks for employees to temporarily step away from work.
  • Offer a phased return-to-work program for employees returning from a mental health-related leave of absence.

What does successful workplace mental health programming look like?

Successful workplace mental health programming looks different for each organization. Let’s see how a few HR leaders made it work at their company:

We normalize conversations about mental health, encouraging employees to seek help without fear of judgment. […] Offering remote work options, generous time off policies, and dedicated mental health days shows we prioritize their well-being.

[…] The results? Measurable and motivating! Our employee satisfaction survey scores have climbed a whopping 25% since implementing these changes. Absenteeism rates have also dropped by 10%, proving that a healthy workforce is a happy and productive one.

— Tawny Lott Rodriguez: Head of Human Resources at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School

Paycom offers a $0 copay for in-network therapy and counseling, which helps reduce financial strains for employees. On-site privacy booths where employees can reserve a quiet space for therapy sessions can help with time constraints and on-site well-being advisors provide guidance and resources to employees working to find the right mental health care.

Tanner Bergman: Head of Well-Being at Paycom

We integrate mental health support deeply into our operations by providing resources like flexible work policies, access to mental health days, and by using our own platform to offer health and wellness benefits — without stigma.

It’s about creating a culture where it’s okay to say, “I need a break” or “I need help.” This openness isn’t just about preventing burnout; it’s about fostering an environment where everyone feels supported and empowered to bring their whole selves to work.

— Amy Spurling: CEO and Founder at Compt

Mental health in the workplace FAQs

A mental health disorder is any condition that affects the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves. These conditions usually create distress and impair daily activities.

Examples of common mental health disorders include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Substance abuse disorders.

A word of caution: Avoid making assumptions about an employee’s mental health state. Some mental health conditions may be invisible, especially if they are well-managed. This doesn’t give you a pass to deny someone the flexibility they may need to perform their best at work.

At the same time, assuming an employee has been diagnosed with a mental illness is also problematic since it can lead to biased employment decisions and adverse actions. If this happens, you may face lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — even if the employee does not have a mental health disorder.

You and your management teams can identify mental health concerns through regular one-on-one meetings, anonymous surveys and suggestion boxes, and effective mental health awareness training.

Learn more: 7 Warning Signs of an Unhappy Employee.

The workplace provides several risks that could lead to poor mental health in the workplace. Your industry, for example, plays a major part. The constant threat of workplace injury or accident in high-risk sectors like construction can take a significant toll on workers’ psychological well-being.

Another factor is an employee’s role. For example, workers in front-facing jobs in non-profits, restaurants or retail, hospitality, and medical industries are more prone to experiencing client or customer service burnout.

Other common mental health risk factors at work include:

  • Excessive workloads and understaffing.
  • Inflexible work hours.
  • Unclear job expectations.
  • Lack of training and development.
  • No procedure for raising concerns.
  • Promotions or demotions.
  • Unsafe working conditions.
  • Company expansions, mergers, or acquisitions.
  • Restructuring or job transfers.
  • Direct supervisor or upper management changes.
  • Layoffs.
  • Complaints about compensation, benefits, and culture.
  • Workplace harassment, bias, violence, or discrimination.

According to Collins, one of the biggest challenges when addressing mental health in the workplace is knowing where to start. Because employers may feel uncomfortable addressing employees struggling with mental illness, they may find it easier to “avoid it” than to develop a plan.

Another challenge is cultural differences. Employees may define, experience, and manage mental health differently based on their backgrounds and beliefs. As a result, aligning mental health initiatives with a diverse workforce can lead to bias or inequity if it seems you prioritize one group’s needs over another.

Explore our page on cultural competency to understand the value of different cultures in the workplace.

Jessica Dennis Avatar

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