4 Actionable Strategies to Elevate Mental Health at Work

by | May 9, 2024

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while the greater goal is not to need a designated month to spotlight mental health issues at work, if it creates more conversation and ultimately action then I am here for it because that is what matters!  

We all have mental health and will most likely struggle with it at different points throughout our lives. One in four people will also be diagnosed with a mental health condition. The state of your mental health can impact your work and work relationships and for too many people mental health issues are directly caused by their work conditions. Mental health and work are intertwined and it is a necessary workplace priority. 

Caring for the mental health of your employees is the right thing to do, and it’s also the smart thing to do, as people need to be healthy—mentally, emotionally, and physically—to perform their best at work. Given more employees (and leaders!) are demanding it today, it’s absolutely a must-do. 81% of workers agree that how employers support mental health will be an important consideration for them when they look for future work. Times and expectations have indeed changed.

I’m deeply grateful that so many more leaders and organizations today understand the “why.” However, what becomes more challenging is the “how”—and we absolutely need to address the how. Even though intentions regarding work health and happiness are better than ever, the data still paints a worrisome picture. For example, nearly one-third of U.S. workers believe their job negatively affects their mental health. 

I have witnessed and experienced the toll that ill-being at work can take. I grew up seeing both my parent’s well-being deteriorate and work was a main factor. The stress and burnout beyond unacceptable. The stigma surrounding mental health sky high which made the ability to talk about their mental state seem impossible. And sadly I got to experience all of it for myself for years at a toxic company where I was struggling with anxiety and depression. 

Let’s come back to the positive shall we? We are better positioned to care for mental health at work than ever before. There is more information, resources, and tools to help you with the “how” and I am going to share a few of them with you. But before I do, another point I want to drive home is just how great an impact you have on employee mental health. Research shows that for most people, managers have a greater impact on employee mental health than their therapist or doctors, and equal of an impact as their spouse or partner! 

Here are 4 meaningful strategies and resources to help you elevate mental health at work:

1. Talk About It 

Simple? Yes. Easy? Absolutely not. Research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that we have moved the needle in the sense that more people believe it’s acceptable to discuss mental health at work and would be comfortable if others discussed their mental health with them, but only 58% said they would feel comfortable talking about their own mental health. Open discussion around mental health at work is vital and one of the roadblocks is we don’t know how to talk about it effectively both as the person who is sharing their experience and the person who is hearing about it and responding. People are afraid to say the wrong thing and they are fearful that others will say the wrong thing. 

And it’s true, the language we use matters. Melissa Doman, MA who is an organizational psychologist and former clinical mental health therapist shares in her book, “The language that we use helps to shape the reality we all share. It helps to shape our attitudes in how we view the world, the meanings of what we say to others, and to ourselves.” Her book Yes You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work (Here’s Why and How to Do it Really Well) is a gold mine for creating this shared language and communication confidence around mental health at work that helps us to be more open and vulnerable. I am a huge fan of Melissa’s and have enjoyed connecting with her this year as she is kind as can be but also has the no-nonsense attitude and soul that we need around mental health. I highly recommend checking out her book and her LinkedIn learning courses. The reality is, that most of us have never been taught how to talk about mental health, if you don’t educate yourself and your employees then you can’t expect that this critical skill is one people will have.

2. Meet Employee’s Motives

Shameless plug, meeting motives is a critical component to mental health at work. Mental health includes our psychological, emotional, and social well-being and at Motives Met our research uncovered the 28 psychological, emotional, and social needs that are the heart of what well-being at work is all about. The need to feel we matter at work. The need to be treated fairly. The need to learn and grow. The need for connection. The need to feel safe. Our research shows if motives like APPRECIATION, FAIRNESS, GROWTH, CONNECTION, and SECURITY go unmet things like stress and burnout increase and productivity, performance, and connection decrease. In my book Work Life Well-Lived: The Motives Met Pathway to No-B.S. Well-Being at Work I share, “If we want to be mentally healthy humans at work, then we need to embrace being human—with needs, struggles, mistakes, and the feelings behind them, and we need to embrace the humanness of others.” Things like wellness tech or mental health days are benefits to be sure, and I mention those as supportive resources below, but they will not solve for unmet motives, for the deeper root cause of ill-being at work. 

When you create a culture that has the shared “motives mindset” people take responsibility and accountability for keeping the 28 motives healthy at work and can co-create collective well-being together. It’s about leading people down the 5-step pathway to well-being we developed to understand, be mindful, evaluate, communicate, and ultimately meet motives. As a leader, you play a pivotal role in creating a mentally healthy culture but ultimately you must share that responsibility effectively, because at the end of the day culture is about people, what they think, how they feel, and how they act. You can download our free Work Well-Being Research & Culture Roadmap or learn about our tools like the Motives Met Human Needs Assessment that can support you to create a culture where motives are met. 

3. Share Stories

Research shows that storytelling is linked with greater mental health and well-being benefits.  Stories can help to heal, make people feel less alone, empowered, and grow compassion and trust. When employees share their experiences with their mental health it leads to deeper understanding and greatly helps reduce the stigma surrounding mental health that keeps so many quiet. Stories have a unique power to connect us in a way that pure data and information simply can’t so create opportunities for employees to volunteer to share their stories. It’s important to have the psychological safety and trust where employees feel they can talk about their mental health when they need to at work which was the first point I shared, but really devoting the time and space for proactive storytelling to take place elevate it to a higher level. 

It’s also incredibly impactful when leaders and managers become allies through sharing their stories. Research shows 88% of employees appreciate it when their company’s leader discuss their own mental health. Kelly Greenwood is the Founder of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on changing the culture of workplace mental health. She says, “A leader ally story is an authentic, vulnerable, and supportive message that includes a personal experience with mental health, which can range from high stress to burnout to grief to a diagnosable condition. It can be past or present, a one-time episode, or an ongoing challenge, and it may or may not have affected work.” Leaders can really set the tone when they become mental health allies and advocates. Here’s a great podcast episode of Kelly Greenwood sharing how leaders shape the organizational climate around mental health. Sharing your story, even simply the ways you have struggled with things like stress and burnout at work, and having other leaders in your organization share theirs can have a big impact. 

4. Provide Valuable Resources 

If you want to elevate mental health at work, then you need to provide the resources to make it happen. Investing the time, dollars, and energy to have comprehensive support systems. Bring in experts to coach and guide your leadership. Implement Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide confidential counseling and support services. Ensure that all employees are well-informed about the resources you offer and can access them effortlessly. Have webinars and internal stigma-reducing campaigns that reinforce your commitment to mental health at work. Offer things like mental health days, mindfulness training, and stress reduction strategies to further support. 

Another often overlooked resource? Your own employees. There are many mental health advocates and champions who will help lead and ideate strategies if given the opportunity to do so. When considering resources, make sure you accept and apply employee feedback to refine offerings to make the greatest impact. And remember while mental health days, webinars, and stress reduction strategies are great, if employees find they need mental health days off work and to use stress strategies because of things like negative work relationships, a toxic culture, and burnout then these things will mean crap to be quite honest.     

Let’s make mental health matter beyond May! What is a new action or strategy you are going to explore to thread greater well-being into your leadership approach and culture?