Workers’ Mental Health Is Suffering. Now, There’s a Roadmap for Companies That Want to Help

February 11, 2021
  • Daniel Tam-Claiborne

    Former Associate, BSR

  • Elisa Pinto de Magalhães portrait

    Elisa Pinto de Magalhães

    Manager, Consumer Sectors, BSR

  • Sara Enright

    Former Director, BSR

The deployment of COVID-19 vaccines is a small beacon of hope amid the devastation of the past year: globally, nearly 2.3 million people have died, and millions more are struggling to cope with the new reality of government lockdowns, limited social contact, and new ways of working and learning. To say it has been stressful is an understatement: the number of adults in the U.S. reporting anxiety or depression increased nearly fourfold from July 2019 to December 2020. 

It’s not surprising then that workforce mental health is top of mind for companies as we enter the second year of the pandemic. Many companies have reported increased stress, anxiety, and depression among their workforces, particularly among frontline workers.

A robust approach to workplace mental health and well-being has been linked to positive outcomes for workers, such as improved overall health and a better work-life balance, and for companies, such as enhancing productivity and minimizing burnout.

For the past six years, the Healthy Business Coalition (HBC), a collaborative initiative among BSR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and leading companies, has worked toward building a community of cross-sector leaders to create communications and tools that drive interest and investment in health and well-being across value chains. Building off of the launch of our Business Actions for a Healthy Society last July, HBC has developed a roadmap to promote mental well-being and resilience.

The roadmap identifies a set of core objectives that need to be met in order to achieve workforce mental health, wellbeing, and resilience in the U.S., as well as a set of interventions that companies can take individually and collectively to bring about these objectives. To advance holistic workforce mental well-being, companies are encouraged to invest in individual and collective interventions across all objectives.

Our three objectives include:

1. Employers destigmatize mental health in the workplace by raising awareness, inviting more constructive storytelling, and community building around mental well-being and resilience.

As companies and workers have become more aware of the importance of workplace mental health and wellbeing, companies have taken steps to destigmatize mental health, extend mental health counseling to more workers, and provide flexible work options. Still, only around 14 percent of workers feel comfortable telling HR about any issues with mental health and well-being they may be experiencing. This indicates that a significant amount of work remains to be done in destigmatization and in training managers, as well as all workers, to identify signs of mental illness and to speak about mental health and well-being openly.

2. Workplaces address their role in contributing to stress and other adverse impacts on mental well-being.

Work itself is one of the primary contributors to stress and anxiety for workers. According to the American Institute of Stress, 83 percent of US workers suffer from work-related stress, and 35 percent of those workers attribute their stress to their relationship with their boss. 

3. Workers benefit from improved access to mental health services, including affordability, availability, acceptability, and quality services within the workplace and at a national level.

77 percent of organizations report that they have experienced an increase in requests for mental health support since the lockdowns associated with COVID-19, as workers cope with increased anxiety, depression, and social isolation brought on by the pandemic. Yet at the same time, many workplace mental health programs have barriers that impede some workers from accessing mental health benefits. Mental health care benefits are not always included with physical health care benefits offerings, and many workers do not have access to any health care benefits at all, which is particularly true for hourly, part-time, and contingent workers.

The costs of ignoring workplace mental health and well-being, on the other hand, are high.

In addition to the personal turmoil experienced by the individual, poor mental health and well-being has negative consequences for companies as well. According to Deloitte, poor mental health will, on average, cost businesses between US$1,900 and US$3,000 per employee per year. Furthermore, depressed workers miss between six to 25 more days per year and suffer from impaired performance between 13 and 29 percent of their time at work.

At HBC, we‘re interested in understanding your company’s primary concerns and challenges facing mental health in the workplace. We can work with you to review current practices and initiatives with the goal of sharing best practices and spurring collective action. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to the HBC team with any questions or to find out how to get involved.

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