Mental health is a part of everyone’s health journey. And unfortunately, we’ve reached a crisis point for workplace mental health across companies of all sizes and industries. According to the TELUS Mental Health Index — mental health status of employed adults across Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Australia — overall mental health scores in the U.S. have barely moved (69.8 to 70.9 from February to May 2023). And 42% of workers have a moderate mental health risk, while 22% are high risk.

The risks for poor mental health in the workplace are numerous, including poor working environments, excessive workloads and underuse or being under-skilled for work. Another major contributor to the issue: Many employees may perceive that their friends, family, co-workers and managers won’t understand the nature of their crisis or will think negatively of them, leaving them feeling lost and without a place to go for help and support.

However, mental health struggles don’t impact just one employee — they impact the entire team. Poor mental health can affect workplace productivity, which can create a challenge for the business: “How do we manage revenue, costs and productivity while ensuring employees have a strong support system in place?”

How Did We Get Here?

There isn’t always a singular root cause when an individual worker experiences a mental health challenge. It could be caused by anything from the death of a loved one or pet, a divorce, an incident at work or in the grocery store. It can also be a symptom of a chronic health condition or possibly a reaction to a social disadvantage such as poverty — or any combination of these events. According to a McKinsey survey, employees who have two or more unmet social needs, such as lack of transportation or child care, are more likely to have poor mental health. Poor working conditions is another a major contributor to poor mental health in the workplace. Nearly three in five employees have experienced negative impacts of work-related stress in the past month.

There’s also a growing shortage of mental health professionals: An estimated 163 million people live in shortage areas, where over 8,200 practitioners are needed to close the gap. By the end of 2024, the U.S. will experience a shortage of as many as 31,091 psychiatrists, placing increased strain on psychologists, social workers and other providers. Mental health professionals are also not immune from the struggle of poor mental health themselves. They experience burnout, stress, depression and other symptoms like anyone else, impacting both their professional and personal lives.

Approximately 60% of the U.S. population is employed — workplaces have a responsibility to support employees in need of mental health treatment. A safe, healthy work environment is a fundamental right for employees. When employees feel comfortable in their environment, they are more likely to work collectively with increased productivity rather than flee for greener pastures. Conversely, an unhealthy workplace without necessary support systems can collapse under a mountain of stress, tension and turnover.

How Do We Move Forward?

Employers must adopt an inclusive, people-first approach to supporting mental health needs in the workplace. Part of adopting that mindset is understanding how mental illness presents itself and that it differs for everyone. It can manifest as numerous behaviors, including disengagement, extreme fatigue and burnout, short temper, hyperactivity and hypersensitivity; it can also be a combination of multiple things. Left unresolved, these symptoms can significantly and negatively impact productivity. According to the June 2023 Telus Health Index, 21% of workers in the U.S. report their mental health is negatively impacting work productivity. Furthermore, in a 2018 Gallup poll, 55% of Americans said they experienced stress during a lot of the day, and 45% said they felt worried a lot and more than 1 in 5 (22%) said they felt anger a lot.

Once leadership understands the myriad representations of mental health struggles, the key to mitigation is personalization. Men and women don’t experience mental illness in the same way or at the same rate: Women are two to three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after an event, impacting their mental health. And according to the June 2023 index, the average women’s mental health score is significantly lower than men.

To stay ahead of the curve, employers must use technology to integrate a 360-degree, comprehensive mental health resource system into employees’ benefits packages. Many employees today sign up for health benefits through their employers. They receive access to a digital portal to view benefits and choose a physician, dentist, eye doctor or other health provider.

The next step is ensuring that the same portal allows employees to find a mental health professional and access resources and give them the education and support they need to take the first step to getting the help they need. The right platform should offer four distinct benefits:

  • 24/7/365 care: People needing mental health care don’t have time to wait. It might be a minor concern that needs a bit of coaching advice, or a major crisis, but there isn’t always a fine line between the two because of the pendular nature of mental health. Constant support is also a crucial step in early detection and diagnosis. When the symptoms are missed, it can lead to years of struggle.
  • On-demand counseling: Mental health concerns are not scheduled, so counseling must be available as often as needed through whatever medium best fits each scenario. An individual might not want to see another person or even talk, so having numerous platforms — in person, phone, video or chat — is necessary.
  • Personalized care: A dedicated coach or mentor can act as a personal guide to ensure the right action is being taken for the situation. With a complete understanding of an individual’s background, they can use the full range of benefits available to build a unique plan that’s also flexible whenever change is needed.
  • Simple digital tools: Employees don’t have to limit mental health treatment to interactions with their counsellor or care navigator. For example, they can use digital resources for self-guided therapy to practice breathing techniques learned through counselling sessions. With data collection capabilities, a digital mental health platform can track progress, allowing for a constant feedback loop between employees and their care team.

Mental health training initiatives should outline the resources and support your company offers and should encourage employees to utilize them.

Flexible work arrangements, peer support programs and training sessions on mental health are effective actions to immediately address the conditions contributing to poor mental health in the workplace.

Putting people first matters more than ever before. It’s up to leadership to create the conditions that lead to happier, more engaged employees, developing a culture conducive to success. Now is the right time for organizations to step up and fight against the workplace mental health crisis.