Mental Health Plays a Crucial Role in Building a Resilient Workforce

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December 21, 2022


Mental health — and its connection to physical health — has become an increasingly important concern for many organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed significantly to the increased emphasis on employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing. Now, economic factors such as inflation and the possibility of recession, as well as social justice issues, are raising employer awareness of the need to find the most appropriate measures and benefits when it comes to mental health. The prevalence of mental health challenges adds to the urgency for support: a 2022 Gallup survey of approximately 16,000 U.S. workers found nearly one in five rating their mental health as fair or poor.

“There is a direct correlation between mental and physical health, and we cannot ignore that anymore,” says Denise Heybrock, assistant vice president and behavioral health consultant at Aon. “I think employers overall have been good about focusing on the physical health components of their employees, however, employers don’t always consider the importance of bring the mental and emotional components into the equation.”

Underscoring businesses’ recognition of the issue, Aon’s 2021 Global Wellbeing Survey found respondents ranking employee burnout and anxiety among the top five risks affecting company performance. Stress is a component of both, Heybrock notes.
“We saw this pre-pandemic, too,” says Heybrock. “The pandemic just made it worse.”

In Depth

The effect of poor mental health can be seen across an organization. In Gallup’s 2022 survey of U.S. workers, those employees rating their mental health as fair or poor were estimated to have 12 days of unplanned absences annually, versus 2.5 days for all other workers. These absences come at a steep economic cost, with an estimated annual productivity loss of nearly $48 billion.

Though employers may incur financial losses due to mental-health related absences, they can realize benefits from investing in their employees’ wellbeing. Analysis from the U.S. National Safety Council and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago found that employers see a $4 return for every $1 invested in employee mental health care.

In another 2022 poll, 67 percent of U.S. workers surveyed said they found their employers’ mental health offerings to be beneficial with 23 percent of respondents noting their employers added new mental health benefits during the pandemic.

Still, there’s work to be done in raising the profile of mental health benefits. A report this year from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the SHRM Foundation and health care company Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. found that nearly 78 percent of organizations offer or plan to offer mental health resources in the next year — but only 32 percent of human resources professionals surveyed for the report said such mental health offerings were a “high priority” for their organizations.

Seeking Emotional Fitness

As they look to address employee mental and emotional health issues, many organizations start by reviewing their current benefits offerings to determine what’s working and what’s not. This includes looking at mental health benefits through a lens of increasing employees’ emotional fitness, says Elisha Engelen, vice president of Health Transformation at Aon.

“It’s more around prevention,” Engelen says. “It can be through mental health first aid, business resource groups or employee resource groups that help leaders understand the prevalence of mental and emotional health issues and what they can do. People are more open to the conversation, it’s just that sometimes they don’t know the right words.”

The Right Tools, The Right Culture

In many cases, employers are realizing they already have many of the necessary tools — they just need to improve communications with employees about what’s available. That’s especially significant in trying to meet employee needs while controlling costs in the face of a possible recession.

“With the threat of a recession, employers are looking at costs and whether they really need to bring on something new, or whether they can build out and better promote existing offerings,” says Heybrock.

If those programs are to succeed, however, organizations must have the right culture in place. Heybrock says organizations should consider whether they have flexibility, empathetic leadership for people who are struggling and managers and leaders who know how to recognize employees in need of support. “If the leaders aren’t embracing these things, the other employees won’t be open to doing it because they don’t have an example,” adds Rita Silva, deputy business leader of HR Solutions Portugal at Aon.

It’s also critical to eliminate the stigma often attached to seeking mental or emotional health assistance. “The tricky part is how to show people that they can use these tools and talk freely about their mental health,” says Silva.

Building Effective Mental Health Programs

If employers determine their mental health benefits are falling short, they can take several steps to craft more effective programs.

1. Assess existing offerings and determine what mental or emotional wellbeing gaps need to be filled. A successful program will focus on prevention and risk reduction as well as treatment.
2. Because employees’ needs vary, mental and emotional wellbeing offerings should also address that diversity. While digital solutions will be suitable for some employees, others might benefit more from in-person sessions. The right mental health framework will provide appropriate approaches for every employee.
3. Employers should also examine the data available to them from sources such as employee assistance programs; absenteeism; and mental health, medical, and pharmacy-related sources. How frequently organizations assess data will depend on an organization’s culture. Some might conduct assessments annually or semi-annually, while others might supplement those assessments through the year with information generated through employee surveys or focus groups.
4. Finally, employers should also create a mechanism for gathering feedback from employees to ensure that mental and emotional health programs are meeting their needs. “In this type of assessment, they should use surveys or other tools to gather information from employees so they can reframe their strategies based on specific employee needs,” says Joana Coelho, senior associate of Health Solutions EMEA at Aon. “In our experience, this part of the assessment is often not being done by companies before they define what they want to implement.”

An Integrated Approach to Employee Health

Considering mental and emotional health as integrated parts of an overall approach to employee wellbeing can increase organizations’ chances of success in building a healthy, resilient workforce. To make progress in this area, employers can take an approach that includes a close look at their existing benefits offerings, their employees’ needs, and the data that can inform decision making. Such a view of employee health could help workplaces get ahead of wellbeing challenges by making sure support structures are in place when employees need them.

“We often do a lot more on the prevention side for physical health than for mental health,” says Heybrock. “We’re starting to get better, but it’s just starting.”