Mental Health at Work: How Employers Can Provide Support

mental health at work

Every May at Kenzie Academy, we like to pause and reflect on mental health at work while we observe Mental Health Awareness Month. Check out some of last year’s blogs for insightful dialogue about apps focused on mental health, self-care, and how to take care of your mind during the pandemic.

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re thinking about the ways employers can support mental health in the office — after all, we spend a third of our lives at work. And over the last year, new conversations around workplace mental health have been happening all over the world due to the pandemic’s effect on everyone’s well being. 

Today, we’re diving into the ways employers can contribute to keeping the workplace (and our minds) healthy while recognizing ways to improve mental health and manage stress. 

Why should employers focus on mental health at work? 

The CDC reports that poor mental health can negatively affect job performance and productivity, engagement with one’s work, communication with coworkers, and physical capability and daily functioning. Fostering employee mental health offers benefits to both employees and employers. 


On the employer-side, good mental health at work can help reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and morale which can all have a positive effect on company profits. After all, when employees feel they can show up to work as their healthiest selves, they’re more likely to perform well, focus better, and seek out career development. When people are empowered to take care of their mental health, their quality of life improves, and that’s more important than any bottom line.

When employers take the time to provide resources and speak openly about mental health, employees may feel more comfortable being open when they’re dealing with something, prioritizing treatment, and engaging with other resources at work and outside of it. 

How do you deal with mental health at work? 

Nearly 1 in 5 American adults live with mental illness according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With so many of us needing to address mental health in our lives, it’s critical our workplaces can be positive spaces that honor our humanity and well being. Mental health concerns can be recognized and addressed on the part of employers by embracing job flexibility, offering quality health insurance, fighting against taboos, and fostering a non-toxic workplace culture. Here are four ways employers can come alongside their employees to cultivate a healthy workplace. 

  1. Embrace Job Flexibility 

First, employers can support employee mental health by being more open to job flexibility. There are a few ways embracing this concept can help nurture mental health.

In order to fight burnout, employers should consider implementing mental health day policies. As Americans, we pride ourselves on our strong work ethic and productivity. While this is usually a positive quality, sometimes we tend to overwork ourselves in the good ole USA. Two out of 5 American workers feel guilty for missing even just one day of work. You likely know (or maybe are) someone who rarely uses their vacation days or sick time. We’re here to help break the illusion: not taking time off doesn’t mean you’re working harder. It’s just keeping you from getting the R&R you likely need. 

Leaders in a mental health-focused work environment are champions for understanding when workers need to take mental health days to tend to their minds. These leaders can also demonstrate their empathy and flexibility on an ongoing basis by supporting employee time off requests for weekly therapy appointments. Of course, privacy needs to be respected in these conversations and an employee shouldn’t be asked to disclose the reason they’re attending therapy or taking a day to themselves.

Finally, employers should consider their policies around vacation time. Are employees offered adequate time off? Are they burning out easily due to a lack of time off? Vacation time exists for a reason, so not only should companies recognize it as a necessary tool for employee satisfaction and productivity, but the best employers also treat it as a time for workers to completely unplug and refresh their minds.

  1. Offer Quality Health Insurance 

If I had a dime for every time a friend told me mental health services are still too expensive even with their employer-sponsored insurance, I’d have at least a dollar. In 2021, this isn’t cool.

Luckily, legislators are taking mental health more seriously and the laws around coverage are beginning to reflect it. In 2008, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act required coverage of mental health services to be comparable to physical health coverage.

Of course, not all plans must adhere to this parity requirement (and others find workarounds) but it’s exciting to see how much better mental health coverage has gotten over the last 12 years. Employers can help ease this burden by offering employees quality health insurance options and doing their homework to determine how well their insurance programs cover mental health services. Hopefully, these offerings will improve alongside our next topic…

  1. Reduce stigma

Normalizing mental health in the workplace is an essential way to support employees. The pandemic has really forced us all to slow down and take breaks when life gets to be a bit too much for our minds. 

Companies like Greenlight Guru, Coa, and Here are leading the charge in making mental health conversations happen in the workplace. Whether it’s through offering mental health benefits or launching businesses to bring new mental health tools to market, employers are innovating and bringing these conversations to the forefront. 

Instead of leaning on “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies of the past, it’s up to all of us to create an open dialogue about mental health through our workplace cultures. This can be done through mental health-focused events and addressing topics like burnout during company-wide meetings. This will make employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health issues in the office and decrease the level of shame they may feel around the subject.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, only 32% of Baby Boomers are comfortable discussing mental health in the workplace, while 62% of Millennials are. This statistic is both encouraging and disheartening. It’s encouraging as younger workers are clearly positioned to help shape a future of work where mental health isn’t a taboo subject in the office. But, it’s also disheartening that many older workers are likely struggling and afraid to speak up about their own mental health problems. We can all do our part by examining the language we use to talk about mental health in the workplace and in our lives as we work to create a culture with less shame.

  1. Foster a Non-Toxic Workplace Culture 

Employees’ mental health in the workplace needs tending to just as their mental health does when it concerns other aspects of their lives. We spend so much of our lives at work, so it’s essential for employers to foster a positive workplace culture. A negative office environment can contribute to existing mental health conditions or trigger a new workplace mental health issue for someone. Low morale is not just a workplace issue, it’s personal as people carry the weight of their work with them as they move through their personal lives and the world. 

This is why employers absolutely need to focus on ways they can create a positive atmosphere for employees. They can do this by identifying and solving problem behaviors like gossip and favoritism, listening to employees’ concerns, and promoting openness and communication. Check out this article from HR Morning for more tips on how to fix a toxic workplace and read this Kenzie blog for more tips on how to create better work-life balance.

How does your workplace create an open dialogue around mental health? Join our discussion on Twitter.

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