Are employers doing enough about employee mental health?

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This Mental Health Awareness Month, many employers are spotlighting employee mental health. Yet recent surveys have found that throughout the year, employers may be missing the boat when it comes to meeting their employees’ mental health needs.

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Littler’s 12th Annual Employer Survey, for example, found that 74% of employers report an increase in employee requests for leaves of absence or accommodations for mental health-related issues since last year. However, just 22% of employers say they have changed their related policies—a clear disconnect.

For the survey, Littler, the largest employment and labor law practice representing management, queried more than 400 in-house lawyers, business executives and human resources professionals, 36% of whom hold a C-suite position.

What’s influencing employee mental health?

According to Littler shareholder Devjani Mishra, when it comes to employee mental health, new employer policies often lag one to two years behind major shifts in workplace dynamics. This is complicated by the fact that employers continue to grapple with the lasting cultural changes spurred by the pandemic, which reshaped how employees think about remote work and its impact on their mental health.

Of note, the survey found half of employers continue to see requests for hybrid or flexible work that are not tied to any legally protected reason.

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Devjani Mishra, Littler
Devjani Mishra, Littler

“That finding reflects a fundamental shift in how remote work has become an expectation for many employees,” Mishra says. “Though the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror for most purposes, many employers are still seeing its lasting effects in the form of vastly increased accommodation requests, particularly related to mental health.”

It’s not just lack of access to remote work that is dragging down employee wellness, however. Littler’s findings on employee mental health come at the same time as a recent Monster poll that found that about three out of four (74%) workers say their mental health at work is negative.

As for the factors driving that, 62% blame a toxic work culture, while 53% of workers cite a bad manager. Nearly half blame layoff fears or the current economy for their stress, while 43% equally cite a lack of growth opportunities and an increased workload.

Strategies to strengthen support

According to Monster career expert Vicki Salemi, employers looking to strengthen their support for employees must first be realistic about the state of their workforce’s mental health.

“As many employees are asking for mental health leave, employers should remove themselves from the equation without bias by simply assuming their workplaces don’t have any issues,” she says. “So, it means employers must assume there are issues.”

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She suggests employers can play the role of an external consultant conducting an audit, answering questions such as, what is the environment like? What are the workloads of employees? What is the culture? What is the support they get from their boss?

To find these answers, Salemi says, leadership can hold quarterly town hall meetings and/or “ask me anything” sessions online and/or in person. Such efforts can also be used to assure workers about job security, given that is a leading cause of employee stress.

Vicki Salemi, Monster
Vicki Salemi, Monster

Employers aiming to support their employees’ wellbeing can also learn from the minority of workers who reported great mental health at work. Of those, 61% of attributed their mental wellness to flexibility: Their employers allow time away from the office for doctors, therapy and other health-related appointments.

“Start with smaller steps,” Salemi adds, noting that organizations may have overly ambitious visions of launching a formal mental health program, which may require significant investments. As an alternative, she says, focus on small ways to meaningfully support employee mental health.

“It’s a win for both the employee and employer when mental health is prioritized and supported in the workplace,” Salemi says.

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