Mental Health Matters in the Workplace
Center for Women and Business calls on corporations to prioritize emotional wellness
Before COVID-19, emotional wellbeing was a significant, but largely solitary, concern for America’s workforce. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults — or roughly 51.5 million women and men ages 18 and older — grappled with mental health issues in 2019, but fewer than half sought professional help. These silent struggles had a ripple effect on the greater economy, costing businesses an estimated $53 billion in lost productivity, accelerated turnover, and increased insurance premiums and disability claims.
Today, the added stresses of the pandemic — physical isolation from family and friends; financial anxieties resulting from job loss and pay cuts; and, above all, the untimely deaths of loved ones — have only compounded the issue. As Trish Foster, executive director of the Gloria Cordes Larson Center for Women and Business (CWB), explains, COVID-19 has created “a perfect storm that’s soon to make landfall in the form of greater mental health afflictions in the workplace.”
In partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit advocating greater inclusion for people with disabilities, the Center hosted a virtual event on April 14, inviting its corporate partners to explore what they can do to create more inclusive working environments that emphasize and affirm mental health.
The event highlighted new research conducted by Danielle Hartigan, associate professor of Health Studies and director of Bentley’s Health Thought Leadership Network. Hartigan found that, while all workers can benefit from corporate wellness initiatives, employees entering or reentering the workforce — in particular, recent college graduates — need additional services and support.
“New entrants to the workforce face unique challenges,” Hartigan explains, noting that young professionals ages 18-25 are not only more likely to be working lower-wage jobs with minimal benefits, but also experience more mental health challenges than any other age group. The transition from university life to the working world brings additional stress, due to changing support networks and social circles and job performance anxieties.
To better understand the unique needs of young workers — and what businesses are currently doing to support employees’ emotional wellbeing — Hartigan conducted parallel surveys with college students and professionals working in human resources, talent acquisition, employee engagement and related fields. She found that, while both groups viewed mental health support as essential to employee satisfaction and retention, they had very different perspectives about existing programs and policies.
For example, while 72% of professionals felt employees would not be stigmatized at work for disclosing a mental health concern, 85% of students were reluctant to raise issues with a manager or supervisor, believing that doing so would result in them being treated differently by both superiors (78%) and co-workers (71%), and could cost them job opportunities (71%).
At the same time, 85% of students said they would welcome managers reaching out to them to broach mental health concerns. Of the professionals surveyed, 59% indicated that employees engaged in regular conversations about emotional wellbeing with managers, yet only 25% of companies devoted time for these discussions, and even fewer (23%) supported supervisors with dedicated training. This is particularly problematic, Hartigan says, since “recognizing and responding to mental health concerns is challenging even for trained healthcare providers.”
Additionally, 84% of students felt that employers should provide space for employees to connect around emotional wellbeing, with 59% reporting that the mental health resources offered by an employer would influence their decision to accept or decline a job offer. Yet only 21% of professionals indicated their companies provided opportunities for such connection, offering individualized resources (e.g., Employee Assistance Plans, digital and telehealth services, health insurance) instead, with just 20% providing information about wellness benefits during the interview process.
Overall, Hartigan’s research makes clear that employers need to do more to bridge the gap between employee expectations and workplace realities, particularly for young professionals. And while her research outlines specific actions employers can take, the most important thing companies can do is normalize conversations around mental health.
As Foster sees it, the physical and mental challenges posed by COVID-19 make now an ideal time for companies to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and institute a “culture of caring.” The pandemic has increasingly blurred the line between employees’ professional and personal lives, and in doing so, has highlighted the need for a sustained and holistic approach to corporate wellness.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, agrees. “It is incumbent upon today’s workforce and industry leaders to take steps to bridge the alarming gap between employees’ rising mental health challenges and the resources that employers offer to alleviate those challenges. We need to create a culture in our workplaces where employees feel comfortable saying ‘I need help,’ and where managers have the tools, knowledge and skills to adequately address their concerns.”
Kayleigh May ’21 fully appreciates the uniqueness of her position.
Despite a demanding course load — an Honors student, May is double majoring in Information Design and Corporate Communication and Liberal Studies: Global Perspectives, with a minor in Health and Industry — she eagerly signed on as Danielle Hartigan’s research assistant.
As such, May played an integral role in survey development, data analysis and preparation of the final report. She was also able to see, over the space of just four months, the full impact of her and Hartigan’s research. “It’s pretty amazing — and unusual — to be able to present our findings directly to policy makers,” she says, “and to know the Center is basing some of its best practices around our discoveries.”
The research topic also resonated with May on a personal level. As a graduating senior, she admits to being nervous about what the future holds. “Seeing survey responses from other college students showed me I’m not alone in feeling this way.” And as she interviews for jobs post-Bentley, “I’m definitely looking to see what systems prospective employers have in place to support my success.”