Business people meditating in office

Working Well

Mental Health and Wellness Programs Can Boost Employee Engagement and Morale—but only if they use them. 

Every day, each of us has a lot going on. At home, on our screens, in our news feeds and on the job. It doesn’t take a big push to make it all feel like too much to bear, especially lately.

So what do we do when it feels that way? Over the past two years, our team has learned to stop and take a breath. On screen or off, we close our eyes and focus on nothing but breathing, sometimes only for a minute. Then we open our eyes and start the meeting.

Taking a minute to pause and connect has meant a lot to me personally, and it sends a message to the team that we value their emotional well-being.

But there’s more we can do.

Organization-based mental wellness services can provide significant relief from the many stressors that employees confront today, such as anxiety, isolation and burnout. But while 87% of employees have access to such programs, only 23% actually use them, according to Gartner’s 2021 EVP Benchmarking Survey.

WE Communications Brands in Motion data finds that companies are taking employee wellness more seriously than ever, and organization leaders increasingly understand the importance of bringing their humanity to the workplace.

So how do employers inspire their people to actually use the resources they provide? It boils down to three methods:

1. Model self-caRe.

A few months into the pandemic, I realized I was running out of steam, and I made an extra effort to take care of myself. Now I make sure to get outside in the middle of the day, sometimes taking calls (off video) while I walk. I talk about this with employees and acknowledge how it makes me feel better.

These are common needs and experiences. In WE executive leadership research, 86% of leaders say the political and social upheavals of these times have prompted them to become more introspective, and more than half report a deeper awareness of their fears, limitations, defenses and impulses.

When managers show their more vulnerable sides and speak openly about their own struggles, employees are more comfortable engaging about their own mental health. In the Harvard Business Review, Gartner’s Carolina Valencia notes that Genentech found a great way to help break the stigma: In a series of videos, company leaders share personal stories about their mental health.

Bottom line: Webinars and intranet announcements aren’t enough — senior leaders need to model self-care. “This may mean actually using your vacation days, being open about the block on your calendar reserved for your therapy appointment or just recommending a great personal development book you’ve read,” management professors Ben Laker and Thomas Roulet note in the MIT Sloane Management Review.

2. Listen to what your direct reports are telling you (even if they don't say it aloud).

WE Communications is a global company, and during the past two years, the common experience of the pandemic made it obvious that we have all been impacted in different ways.

The experience made me think more deeply about what my colleagues might be going through, wherever they might be — since, of course, our employees don’t have to be in the middle of a war or a pandemic to be having a tough time. And many of us are carrying this awareness forward into the new normal. In the WE leadership survey, 78% of respondents say leading with empathy is more important to them than it was the year before.

We all have a role to play in caring for our teammates. Many companies are working to equip their leaders to identify signs that someone needs help. The Great Southern Bank in Australia provides training to managers on how to support their teams — how to talk to direct reports about mental health and spot early warning signs of distress. Virgin Atlantic has trained more than 400 crew members in a two-day mental-health first-aid course.

3. Make sure Gen Z and other recruits see your commitment to well-being.

While older generations might be initially reluctant to participate in mental-health offerings, younger recruits increasingly expect them. In the U.S., two-thirds of millennials and 81% of Gen Z who left their jobs in 2021 cited mental health as the driver behind their departures, says a 2021 study from Mind Share Partners. And LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends report found that about 66% of Gen Z want to see their employers invest more in mental health and wellness (compared with only 31% of baby boomers).

This is an important evolution of worker expectations. Ten years ago, free food and dry cleaning were the go-to perks at the flashiest companies. Now younger recruits are seeking support in more fundamental aspects of their lives, from family leave to therapy to yoga. In other words, they want workplace experiences that support the whole person.

Whether your employees are fresh out of college or nearing retirement, mental and emotional well-being is central to everyone’s lives. Fortunately, companies are taking on the challenge and prioritizing employee wellness like never before. Providing the right kind of support — and inspiring team members to take advantage of it — isn't always easy. But with patience and persistence, we can create a healthier and happier workplace for everyone.

May 18, 2022

Noah Keteyian
EVP of Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose