Mental health in the workplace—while it seems like a trending topic, there is still much stigma surrounding it. With it being the week of Blue Monday 2023, we thought this be an opportune time to discuss the importance of advocating for mental health at work. While many companies and individuals have been open about sharing their thoughts on mental health in recent years, no doubt, due to a shift in remote and hybrid work environments, there is still much work to be done.

Prioritizing Mental Health at Work

Before a business can connect with its target audience to promote mental health messaging, it must first address the situation many employees face, whether working remotely, feeling isolated, or balancing work and home life. The number of employees facing anxiety, depression, and burnout is at an all-time high. This concerning statistic signals employers to reconsider how they can establish the workplace as a safe space and review employee benefits packages to offer support and mitigate work-related mental-health risks. 

While open dialogue surrounding personal mental health has become more accessible thanks to channels like social media, taking action to enact positive change within a workplace isn't quite as simple. Research shows that while over 60% of employees can identify symptoms of poor mental health in themselves the majority of them admit to never having spoken about them at work. Those numbers increase when you filter them through intersections of gender and race (where almost half of Black and Latinx respondents admit to quitting a job entirely due to declining mental health). 

So it is that many employees find themselves in this uncomfortable position, where mental health is a hot topic on social media and in many companies’ branding, but remains primarily unaddressed in their daily work lives, even as they may be struggling more than ever before. This of course begs the question—while mental health is a hot topic on social media and in many companies' branding, it remains largely unaddressed in the employees' work lives.

The Time to Prioritize Mental Health is Now

And during a peak time when companies are prioritizing mental health, employees seem to be struggling more than ever before. With what appears to be solid support systems, why are so many employees still slipping through the cracks?

The long-form answer to that question would delve into other deep-seated workplace issues, such as wage gaps felt mainly through Women of Color or policies surrounding childcare, days off, and team culture (all topics deserving of their own posts). The short answer? Change is slow, and overhauling an entire company culture is a challenge—but as with most significant changes, the best way to start is by communicating and leading by example.

Growth in a Remote-First Environment

At Wrk, we've benefited from building our company amid significant changes over the past three years. Wrk is in a crucial stage of scaling as a company, and since our inception, we have welcomed open dialogue to discuss the kind of culture and policies we want to design for ourselves. Approaching these issues in a remote-first environment was challenging initially, but it was and remains a top priority to which we commit ourselves.

Fostering a Safe Space Beings at the Leadership Level

Leading by example applies to several critical topics surrounding business objectives, and it is no different when discussing mental health in the workplace. The leadership team at Wrk understands its responsibility to uphold a team culture that fosters employee health. We gathered some of their insight, opinions, and outlook on mental health in the workplace in 2023 and how they plan on keeping this energy up beyond Blue Monday and other awareness days.

Should a company is responsible for ensuring its employees' mental well-being?

It may feel like an obvious question with an obvious answer, but the reality is not all businesses consider their employees' mental health when mapping out their priorities. The WHO has previously suggested that many employers do not consider themselves a significant contributor to an employee's positive or negative mental health—an attitude that, while much improved today, still has ways to go. The fact that events such as Mental Health Awareness Week still exist suggests that a vast number of people are unaware of the importance of mental health. In this context, it can seem idealistic to expect employers to be responsible for their employees' mental well-being. 

Mental health at work has been a hot topic for companies in recent years. How would you respond to people who think it's a passing trend? 

We asked Wrk's Director of Marketing, Kelsea Gust, her stance on mental health as a trend—more specifically, self-care and what it entails. According to Kelsea, self-care (as we know it) isn't accessible to the average person and has become more of a trending hashtag that perpetuates consumerism rather than a meaningful way to heal and find wellness. Self-care is truly about making time for caring and addressing your personal needs to be your best self. And while some might think taking small breaks throughout the day is self-care, it isn't—breaks are a bare minimum that everyone needs as a means not to burn out completely. Comparing breaks to self-care is akin to suggesting putting gas in your car is self-care. Gas is necessary to get you from point A to point B. However, ensuring everything "all is good under the hood" increases the vehicle's longevity.

How can leaders advocate for their employees' well-being while maintaining their personal mental health at work?

So far, the conversation has centred on employee experiences with mental health, but aren't leaders just as susceptible to poor work-life balances or struggles with depression and anxiety? At the end of the day, they're human—so yes. Leaders sometimes have to deal with problems that are unique to their jobs, like the stress of layoffs, feeling responsible for the jobs of their employees, or having to steer the big ship that is their company through rough weather. Some leaders might even feel more isolated—being at the top of an organizational chart means having fewer senior employees to turn to for guidance. However, a positive take on this is that leaders can influence team culture for the better. A leader willing to share their personal struggles sets the tone for better communication around mental health.

What are actionable ways a company can promote mental health at work for remote teams?

There are countless ways a company can take action to promote a healthy work environment and address their employees' unique situations to support healthy work-life balances. Regular one-on-ones are a great way to see how your employees are feeling and address any issues as they come up, but casual (re: non-evaluative) contexts are also crucial to building team culture. A company can boost morale and promote connection by an open-door approach for direct reports to do temperature checks with their managers, assigning specific HR leads to offer support in confidence, and even something as simple as a #random slack channel.

Mental Health at Work Outlook in 2023

The past three years have proven that remote and hybrid teams can be as—if not more productive—than traditional team settings. Some people feel uncomfortable talking about important things like mental health, so it's best to get help from an HR professional who has a lot of experience talking about these things in a way that is sensitive and includes everyone. They can help you ask difficult questions: Do your employees feel safe discussing their struggles at work? Does your company have policies and support resources to help parents, employees with differing abilities, unique living situations, and from neuro-diverse backgrounds? When creating an open, safe work environment, what kind of example are you setting for your employees?

As our team at Wrk discusses and builds our policies around wellness, we'll continue listening and joining in these crucial conversations—and we hope you do too.