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L'Oreal Thompson Payton

Work-related stress is fueling America's mental health crisis. Here are solutions to make it better

Outdoor shot of a smiling Asian businesswoman holding coffee and files on the street. (Credit: FreshSplash—Getty Images)

When you take into consideration that people spend most of their waking hours either at work or commuting to work, it should come as no surprise that workplace stress is the top driver of mental health issues. According to Calm’s 2023 Workplace Mental Health Trends Report, 50% of employees say that work stress is impacting their personal lives and their relationships with their family members and friends, as well as their relationships with themselves.

“When people are overwhelmed or stressed at work, it can result in parents being disconnected from their kids at home or partners not having the emotional energy to give to their loved ones,” explains Calm CEO David Ko. “It is important for employers to train mindful managers that can recognize signs of high stress or burnout and promote a healthy work-life balance. Productivity and company culture will suffer when work stress impacts employees’ personal lives.”

But it’s time for employers to go beyond simply talking about mental health needs and putting action (and money) behind making it a priority.

“Many workplaces have settled into their new ‘normal,’ whether fully remote, hybrid, or back in the office full-time, and expect their employees have settled in as well,” says Ko. “However, employees are still processing and healing from the uncertainty, pressure and change of the past three years. Stressors like financial loss, personal illness, and caregiving impact people in the workplace and can even be exacerbated by work stress.”

What employers can do

“Employers and leaders need to recognize they can be both the cause of and solution to workplace stress,” says Scott Domann, chief people officer at Calm. “We must be acutely aware of our employees’ diverse experiences, family situations, and mental health needs, and how these variables impact individuals at work.”

To start, Domann recommends employers offer tangible mental health benefits, such as meditation apps and access to free or low-cost therapy, as well as intangible support from managers, peers, and human resources.

“Providing holistic mental health support for employees is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must have,” he says. “Sixty-seven percent of people from our survey results say employers should offer mental health support and benefits to their employees.”

Moreover, Domann says that employers need to listen, including having engaged conversations with employees beyond the scope of their job duties and conducting regular employee surveys throughout the year instead of one annual one to gather feedback on how employees are doing and what support they require.

Meanwhile, Mark Debus, manager of the behavioral health team at Sedgwick, points to flexible work schedules as a potential solution to workplace stress.

“When it really comes down to it, we only have so many hours in a day and we want to spend that time with our loved ones, developing hobbies and things that are not related to work,” he says. “So from a manager’s perspective, you have to be aware that anything you do that impacts your employee’s schedule—late-night meetings, last-minute travel—is going to be a major source of stress.”

Lastly, Domann urges employers to be open about their own mental health as a way of alleviating the stigma around the conversation at work.

“It’s okay to feel stressed and it’s okay not to be okay. Encourage leaders to talk about their stress and how they care for their own mental health,” he says. “Employees will see these examples and feel more comfortable discussing their own stress and mental health needs at work.”

What employees can do

As for employees, experts encourage staff to take matters into their own hands by advocating for their needs and building their personal mental health toolkits. When interviewing for a new role or going through a life change, Debus suggests the following script: “In order for me to get my job done and be at my best, I’m going to need occasional flexibility to do X, Y and Z. That’s important for me and I will give you 100%.”

And if that doesn’t work, then it may be time to seek employment elsewhere.

“Most employers want you to do a good job. They don’t want employees who are upset, disgruntled, or burned-out,” says Debus. “It’s costly to train new people. It’s more cost-effective to keep your employees happy and not burned-out.”

As we’re expected to prioritize our physical health, Domann recommends doing the same with our mental health.

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