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Unlocking Employee Potential: Making the Workplace Supportive of Mental Health


Contrary to the common misconception, mental health is not limited to being either mentally ill or mentally well. Everyone experiences mental health on a continuum that fluctuates between wellness and illness, much like physical health. Just as unhealthy eating or lack of sleep can affect your physical well-being, your mental health is susceptible to various stressors and life events. 

What is mental health?

Your mental health is comprised of your emotional, psychological, and social well-being, touching every facet of your life and influencing how you think, feel, behave, handle stress, make choices, and relate to others. When you’re mentally healthy, you can live fully, cope with daily stressors, find meaning, produce your best work, and achieve your full potential.

"Without mental health, there is no true physical health."

While it’s common to think of mental and physical health as two distinct realms, the reality is that they are intertwined and mutually influential. Extensive scientific research supports this connection, revealing that mental illnesses like depression heighten the risk of physical ailments like heart disease. Likewise, physical conditions like cancer or fibromyalgia increase the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression. To put it into perspective, the link between depression and heart disease is as strong as the connection between obesity and heart disease!


Significance of Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health was once a taboo topic in the workplace, but societal upheaval and political events sparked a revolution in our approach. The pandemic’s collective trauma and the stress and uncertainty of social fallout have made mental health a top priority in workplaces worldwide. Astonishingly, in 2022, 76% of US workers reported experiencing at least one symptom of mental illness. With a shift in how we think about the intersection between work and wellness, the generations poised to take over the workforce, Millennials and Gen Z, are actively seeking workplaces that prioritize mental well-being, with 60-65% expressing this as a crucial factor in their career decisions.

The average person spends over one-third of their life at work, and employers are responsible for cultivating environments that support employee well-being. This approach not only benefits individuals but also drives business success. Acknowledging the profound impact of aligning workplace practices with mental well-being is essential, as it forms the cornerstone of improving overall mental health.

Visible Costs of an Invisible Struggle

You and your team members’ mental health impacts your interactions, decisions, and work. Employees are like the engine of an organization. When given the ongoing care and attention needed to maintain optimal performance, you help prevent costly consequences. Consider how poor mental health reverberates across an organization:

1. Impact on individuals:

Employees who are engaged at work yet struggling in their personal lives are more likely to underperform due to the burden of emotional baggage. A Gallup study found they are:

  • 61% more likely to experience burnout often or always
  • 48% more likely to report daily stress
  • 66% more likely to experience daily worry
  • 2x more likely to report daily sadness and anger

2. Productivity and performance:

Mental distress diminishes an employee’s cognitive capacity, leading to distraction, impaired problem-solving, and poorer decision-making. Studies estimate that presenteeism, or being physically at work but mentally out of it, accounts for a staggering loss of productivity. Presenteeism bears the responsibility for 80% of the costs from lost productivity– that’s 4x higher than the costs associated with absenteeism. 

3. Absenteeism and turnover:

Employees facing mental health challenges take more sick days, placing additional stress on their colleagues and risking understaffing. Mental illness is also associated with substance use disorders, resulting in higher short-term disability costs and workers’ compensation claims due to safety incidents. A survey from The Standard found that 57% of workers lose 10+ hours a week of productivity due to substance abuse. What is the cost of replacing ineffective employees? 1.5 to 2x of the employee’s annual salary– and that’s not factoring in the cultural impact or lost organizational knowledge.

4. Job satisfaction and morale:

Underperforming employees not only bear the burden themselves but also impact the morale and productivity of their teammates. Ineffective or untimely communication, strained relationships, and poor team collaboration or dynamics force colleagues to compensate for their team members’ deficits and contribute to an unfavorable work environment.

5. Organizational reputation:

In customer-facing roles, decreased employee satisfaction translates to reduced customer satisfaction. In the age where thoughts are posted and broadcasted to a vast online community in the blink of an eye, disgruntled employees can tarnish a company’s reputation, impacting clients, potential job candidates, and public perception.

When mental well-being isn’t prioritized, companies use more time, energy, and resources to be reactive and manage ongoing issues rather than working efficiently, innovating, and being productive.

Making the Workplace Supportive of Mental Health

As organizations leverage the reciprocal relationship between employee well-being and improved workplace performance and cultures, thinking about mental well-being beyond a one-size fits solution is essential.

Managers play a crucial role in bridging the gap between an organization’s goals and the employees who bring them to life. They can foster collaborative, productive, and successful teams by promoting awareness, reducing stigma, providing resources, encouraging work-life balance, and fostering a supportive and inclusive environment.

Promoting awareness and reducing stigma 

  • Educate employees about mental health through group trainings and educational resources. 
  • Encourage open dialogue by asking, “How are you?” and actively listening to their response. Knowing your direct reports beyond their job title creates a sense of trust and safety, making it easier for employees to approach you about issues affecting their well-being. 
  • Conduct regular mental health check-ins to normalize conversations about mental well-being and ensure employees’ needs are addressed.

Providing resources and support systems 

  • Familiarize employees with the available mental health resources by promoting them on the company intranet, placing print materials in highly-trafficked areas, including them in internal newsletters, and hosting benefit fairs. Familiarize yourself with available resources to guide employees seeking help and regularly remind them of their availability. 
  • Respect confidentiality and privacy by offering options like mental health days or private rooms for employees to collect themselves or have counseling appointments.

Encouraging work-life balance

  • Offer flexibility with wellness time off for appointments, flexible scheduling, and remote work options. Autonomy improves mental well-being by giving employees more control over their lives. 
  • Encourage self-care and stress management by openly sharing personal experiences. When leaders demonstrate their own well-being practices and talk candidly about utilizing available resources, it empowers employees to do the same. 
  • Emphasize the importance of using paid time off (PTO) and taking regular breaks. 
  • Set realistic workloads, expectations, and goals to reduce stress and promote a healthier work environment. Normalize boundaries between work and home by establishing communication norms, for example, setting the expectation that emails sent after 4 pm will not receive a response until the next business day.

Fostering a supportive and inclusive environment 

  • Provide training programs for leaders and managers to recognize and address mental health issues. Workshops can help equip them with skills to navigate conversations, create a supportive environment, and foster psychological safety. 
  • Develop a supportive leadership approach by focusing on the desired outcome rather than the problem. For example, if an employee is consistently arriving late to meetings, you may tell them that you need them to arrive on time and ask how you can help make that happen.

Creating a mental health-friendly work culture starts with empowered managers who prioritize the well-being of their team members. Organizations can cultivate a positive and thriving workplace where employees are happier, healthier, and more engaged by promoting awareness, reducing stigma, providing resources, encouraging work-life balance, and fostering a supportive environment. Remember, small actions, such as genuinely asking, “Are you okay?” and listening attentively, can make a world of difference. 

Unlock your potential, empower your team

Whether you manage one direct report or lead a large team, one of your most
challenging responsibilities is bringing out the best in your people.

If you have Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits through EFR, you have access to leadership coaching designed to equip you with the skills to guide your team to success. Explore and get started with leadership coaching today!

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