HR Answers: Burnout and Mental Health

stressed female employee talks to well-being coach in office burnout clinic
Scott Foster Photo

13 minutes

Moving beyond lip service to actually impact employee well-being

This article is reprinted with permission from the Wellco blog. Read the original post here.

Do you remember the time when an employer’s stance was “keep it separated”? The idea was that you were to leave all your “home problems” at the door when you arrived at work—sick family, financial issues, emotions, stress, mental health. Basically, anything that makes you human was out.

We’ve come a long way, and for the better. Mental health has taken center stage as we’ve realized that work self and home self are inseparable. They’re the same whole person.

The answer isn’t to say, “leave it at the door.” That leads to pent-up frustration, resentment and, yes, burnout. Instead, from the CEO to the frontline employee, we must learn to respect and integrate our whole selves.

But this isn’t what’s happening for the most part. According to the CDC, employee stress leads to presenteeism and absenteeism that costs businesses $258 billion a year.

Employers often have a blind spot regarding the wellness needs of their employees.  A recent people analytics survey found that 80% of executives believe their company is doing a good job supporting the physical and mental health of employees, compared to only 46% of employees.

It’s time to do something different. Instead, as companies large and small, we can identify common employee stressors, morale killers and other burnout fuel. You can’t necessarily fix all your employee’s household problems (nor should you—boundaries, please!), but you can and should do what you can to support mental health in the workplace.

It’s good business and a compassionate solution. For this reason, promoting employee mental health and integrated wellness in the workplace is a top priority of HR departments around the country.

Companies Seeking More Robust Solutions for Workforce

Impressions of employee assistant programs are typically neutral at best.  Even enhanced EAP won’t boost utilization much. You probably just think of it as another benefit like insurance or security. It’s nice to know it’s there for the few that see it. It makes your benefits package more attractive to top recruits. But what your EAP doesn’t do is have the impact needed to address the problem most employers are facing today and will continue to face in the future.

Low morale. High turnover. Absenteeism. Presenteeism. Recruits ghosting HR. Overwork during understaffing and supply change shortages. Burnout. Theoretically, an EAP should support your employees through these struggles, ultimately reducing their impact on your business. But something’s obviously not working; EAP programs have around a 5% utilization rate.

Let’s put that in business terms: If only 5% of your members used something you gave them for free, wouldn’t you wonder if you were really giving them something of value? It certainly wouldn’t make sense to continue to invest your resources in a resource with a low utilization rate. Where’s the ROI?

But why do EAPs have abysmal utilization rates? It’s not because employees don’t need mental health services.

Historically, EAP usage has been tragically low as companies struggled to both build programs that address employee needs and communicate their value to the employee.

To help bump usage, around half of the companies polled by SHRM have enhanced or switched to a more robust EAP program. Even then, many employers find that EAP programs of yesteryear no longer stack up in the modern workplace environment.

With that said, many employers’ attempts to show they care about mental health have resulted in low-value lip service rather than the support employees actually need. For the past several years, employers have been looking for something different that people will use and that actually works.

Then the pandemic hit. And what we knew was brewing under the surface came into full view.

Pandemic Ushered in More Mental Health Issues

According to The World Health Organization, anxiety and depression rates have risen 25% globally due to the pandemic. Our youngest workers appear to be hit the worst.

A Boston University study found something similar in the U.S. particularly. Rates of depression have tripled. They found those in low-income brackets and unmarried were the hardest hit.

The sad truth is more, maybe even most, people are struggling with mental health. The prevalence is probably higher than you thought. And so many are suffering in secret. This affects them as a person but also their ability to be productive.

At the same time, post-pandemic problems with recruiting and keeping employees have led to chronic understaffing and more stress. This translates to a catch-22 for many employers: You can’t keep employees because of the stress of understaffing and supply chain shortages. And that stressful environment makes it hard to recruit good employees to make it better.

CHROs Implementing 5 Primary Solutions

Some optimism is in order. 71% of workers surveyed say employers are putting increased focus on mental health following the rise of COVID-19. Yet 25% say their company has maintained status quo, so many of us still have some work to do.

Chief human resources officers from top companies are implementing these five strategies to improve mental health support in the current environment. Companies across the spectrum could benefit from their tactics.

1. Understand Employee Pain Points

Look, just offering mental health services won’t do. That alone will not head off burnout and fatigue. If we don’t understand what’s stressing our employees, we can’t make it better. We must proactively monitor our workforce.

To this end, many organizations are putting consistent processes in place to measure efficacy in their workplaces and how it impacts mental health.

The top 3 measurement tools include:

  • employee engagement surveys (48%),
  • mental health resource utilization (47%) and
  • productivity and attendance (43%).

Employees aren’t likely to come right out and say, “I’m burned out.” Low productivity in an area is one way you can measure rates of burnout effectively. And when combined with these other two tools, you start to see a bigger picture.

When you take a closer look at areas with lower scores, you’re likely to find some of these stressors: inefficient workflows, ineffective management, lack of training, unreasonable quotas and inadequate technology.

They live it every day. And if anyone can tell you how to make it better, they can. Listen to them, actively perform feasibility studies and pilot, and show them you’re implementing their feedback. Target those areas for follow-up with employees and an improvement plan.

When you do these things, you demonstrate your commitment to improving the work environment and individual employee mental health.

According to a survey by Headspace Health, 94% of CEOs think they’re already doing enough to support mental health in their workplace. Yet an Oracle study found that 76% of employees surveyed think employers could do more to support the mental health of their workforce. These measurement tools can detect gaps between what employers think they’re doing right and how employees perceive it. And as we know, perception often comes down to messaging. So...

  1. Do you accept that the problem is probably bigger than you think?
  2. Are you offering services that employees see value in?
  3. Are you communicating the value?

2. Leverage Community

Many companies have spent time railing against social distractions at work. But social butterflies guided in a positive direction can become your best support system. Build a community around your brand that includes employees, management, and customers.

Employees can run vital supporting social media groups and employee-run support services like:

  • Parental tips
  • Adult caregiver support
  • Babysitting
  • Carpooling networks
  • Social mental health support (not to replace but supplement professionals)

It’s important not to make this feel like work. If it is, you had better pay them for it.

Instead, begin from a place of respect. Employees feel respected when you can relate to them as people with real emotions, real problems, and achieve hopes and dreams.

Focus on creating a work environment of psychological safety, trust and dignity. Encourage eating together rather than at desks. Plan a weekly or monthly lunch period that brings the team together in a “nonwork activity”.

In this environment, employees see each other as people, not just co-workers. A sense of community naturally emerges—on social and in the office (if employees are in an office).

You’re creating a magnetic work culture that attracts employees who share your values and want to engage with your culture (which includes getting work done). Companies that build a community see tangible business benefits like:

  • better employer reviews on sites like GlassDoor (86% of people now read these reviews);
  • attracting highly engaged top talent;
  • increasing credibility in your broader community—clients see that you take care of your employees so that they can take care of your clients;
  • 28% lower turnover;
  • higher productivity;
  • 50% less cost-per-hire; and
  • hiring one to two times faster.

3. Expand Offerings

CHROs from top companies are increasing access to free mental health, wellness and physical health services as well as legal services and virtual support. I’m not talking about just rehashing or adding to worn-out ideas about EAP. They’re rethinking everything to make sure their employees are getting the health and wellness services they need to thrive.

4. Work on Manager Soft Skills

Companies are focused on upskilling managers to have more compassionate conversations on nonwork topics that may impact work performance.

5. Leaders Open Up About Their Own Personal Challenges

Leaders are people too. You have your own vulnerabilities, personal doubts and challenges.

Successful companies increasingly realize that showing “vulnerability” doesn’t diminish your authority or effectiveness in the workplace. Conversely, it enhances it.

This comes down to leading by example.

As it stands, employees are not addressing these concerns at work. They don’t walk to talk with HR or management, call the EAP hotline or use other resources even when you’ve communicated these resources are available. Why?

Further digital/remote tools are commonly offered, but, even then, they don’t have the usage needed. Why?

Because you must establish trust first. Trust is established when leaders can make a human connection with their employees.

We need to stop simply offering EAP services and learning and show that we (as employers, managers and leaders) are also participating in these programs. It comes down to tearing down those persistent stigmas.

Mental Health Stigma Remains a Barrier

COVID-19 has amplified burnout. Many of us continue to recover after the pandemic’s overwhelming emotional, financial and personal stress.

Exhaustion has set in as many just want things to return to “normal.”

But as with all major world events, what was “normal” before is no longer possible. It sounds cliché, but a new normal exists, and new and better solutions are called for.

Many companies did lip service to work-life balance before the pandemic. But they were not putting the systems in place that made that balance possible. If we’re to find our own balance, we must create an environment where employees feel that balance. We need to normalize conversations about mental health and life balance and address two stigmas holding us back.

The first is this: 60% of those who would benefit from mental health treatment don’t seek it out. And 20% of people feel doing so would hurt their career.

The second stigma is related. It lies in the fact that although we’re moving in the right direction, many employees still feel there is an unspoken agreement that they do not discuss their personal problems at work. They feel that even if employers encourage openness, doing so could be “held against them” during reviews for promotion and raises.

The pandemic has improved this to some extent. Work life and personal life merged for several months to a year. And we all saw and experienced the fact that work and personal are not two completely separate boxes. You can’t leave one at the door because it’s always with you. It is part of who you are.

What’s happening at home impacts a person’s ability to be productive at work. This applies to everyone—even those who were able to hide it pre-pandemic.

If we want employees to perform well at work, the answer is not to deny that they have personal lives. It’s to treat them as a whole person. Good worker, home life, social life—you’re getting the whole package when you hire.

Business Leaders Not Immune

Before we start to think we’re only talking about frontline employees, let’s look at some sobering data. Rates of mental health absenteeism are even higher among leaders and managers: According to the same survey by Headspace Health, 83% of CEOs and 70% of employees say they have missed work at least once because of stress, burnout or mental health.

We’re all in the same boat. And together, we can make this a much more enjoyable boat ride—all while getting the work done. Mental health issues or success are on a sliding scale rather than on or off. The solution doesn’t have to be an overhaul and is not a permanent course. Go for the quick wins and low-hanging fruit. Work out from there.

As you see the progress, you’ll realize it is possible to help employees find the balance that delivers optimal productivity and the outstanding morale that becomes a magnet for top talent.

Next Steps

Truly impacting mental health without accepting the status quo doesn’t have to be hard. Small changes get you moving in the right direction.

Consider the impact of combining your vision with a strong partner that can also provide on-site initiatives to level up nearly all aspects of your well-being initiatives.

Evaluate the value delivered by each of the mental health tools and vendors you use. This should be based upon usage and employee experience. A 5% utilization? That should be a huge red flag, given what we know about the prevalence of mental health challenges.

Surveys are a great way to collect some objective data you can use to shrink the gap between what you think you’re offering and what employees get or perceive they’re getting.

Based on your evaluation:

  • Identify high-risk people and groups and meet them where they are.
  • Expand your offerings, access, and expertise.
  • Communicate with empathy, sensitivity and vulnerability. These are all critical. Use your own wellness services and share that you use them. You must connect with your employees to build a trusting environment and community where employees want to help each other.
  • Host a strong on-site health screening and risk appraisal that includes mental health and other chronic conditions to avoid overlooking other essential health issues. Then, offer well-being coaching as a reinforcement.
  • Upskill your managers to converse about and support mental health for their team and themselves. Ask them, and have them ask employees questions, such as “What support do you need?” Offer extra support to your leaders with ongoing coaching from an outside expert that includes well-being. Support and encourage. Lead by example. Be vulnerable with them as well.

Note: Many people will not participate in surveys if they currently distrust how you’ll use this information. Trust is something you build over time. Take these steps together to build that trust, and you will see trust grow into a magnetic work culture and community.

You can improve mental health initiative success by focusing on supporting whole people rather than fragmented issues like burnout or mental health.

Small changes, quick wins, low-hanging fruit—this is how you can begin supporting your workforce as the whole people they are. Turn lip service into action. And make a real impact on each employee’s life. What’s good for your people is smart business.

Scott Foster is president of Wellco and a frequently invited expert and speaker regarding wellness, engagement and leadership. Wellco provides award-winning solutions to measurably improve health engagement and outcomes. For more information, contact Wellco.

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